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Fact-checking Newsom-DeSantis debate: Immigration, abortion, book bans and a poop map

In this combination of photos, Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks on Sept. 16, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa, at left, and California Gov. Gavin Newsom, speaks on Sept. 12, 2023, in Sacramento, Calif.
AP
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AP
In this combination of photos, Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks on Sept. 16, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa, at left, and California Gov. Gavin Newsom, speaks on Sept. 12, 2023, in Sacramento, Calif.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and California Gov. Gavin Newsom challenged each other’s records on immigration, crime, COVID-19 lockdowns, the economy and social issues in a rowdy Fox News matchup billed as "The Great Red versus Blue State Debate."

WLRN has partnered with PolitiFact to fact-check Florida politicians. The Pulitzer Prize-winning team seeks to present the true facts, unaffected by agenda or biases.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and California Gov. Gavin Newsom challenged each other’s records on immigration, crime, COVID-19 lockdowns, the economy and social issues in a rowdy Fox News matchup billed as "The Great Red versus Blue State Debate."

DeSantis is among the Republicans running behind former President Donald Trump for the Republican presidential nomination. Newsom, a Democrat, is not running for president — though he could be a future contender — and defended President Joe Biden’s record.

The governors cherry-picked favorable data and talked over each other as moderator Sean Hannity flipped through topics. Newsom was telling "a lot of whoppers," said DeSantis, whose props included a purported map of feces in San Francisco. (We fact-checked it at the end.)

"I can’t wait to get all the PolitiFacts tonight," Newsom said as they feuded over student learning.

Here are our fact-checks from their showdown.

Migration

DeSantis and Newsom went back and forth discussing their states’ population gains and losses.

"He’s the first governor to ever lose population," said DeSantis. "They actually at one point ran out of U-Hauls in the state of California because so many people were leaving."

California’s population declined for the first time ever in 2020, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. It’s been declining since then. (Newsom became governor in 2019). After the 2020 Census, California lost a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time in its history.

In January 2022, U-Haul said that it ran out of one-way trucks and trailers in California at the start of 2021. This was a result of the large demand of people moving out of California in 2020, leaving fewer trucks, a U-Haul spokesperson told The Sacramento Bee.

Newsom countered that there have been "more Floridians coming to California than the other way around in the last two years."

If measuring per capita, Newsom is right that more Floridians have moved to California than the other way around in the last two years, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. But the difference is so small that experts have questioned whether it is meaningful.

In 2022, 1.32 per 1,000 Floridians moved to California, and 1.31 per 1,000 Californians moved to Florida.

In raw numbers, more Californians moved to Florida than the other way around. But this does not account for California's higher population.

A 2023 poll by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 45% of Californians who considered moving to another state cited housing costs as a factor.

COVID-19 lockdowns

Newsom borrowed a page from former President Donald Trump’s playbook by misleadingly portraying DeSantis as a lockdown leader. Newsom’s comments focused on DeSantis’ actions in the pandemic’s first few weeks, when nearly all governors operated in lockstep. Newsom omits that DeSantis reopen earlier than most governors in the spring of 2020.

"You passed an emergency declaration before the state of California did," Newsom said. "You closed down your beaches, your bars, your restaurants. It is a fact."

Many local governments closed beaches for a limited time, but DeSantis did not close them statewide.

DeSantis issued an executive order on March 17, 2020, directing Floridians to "limit their gatherings" at beaches to no more than 10 people and to "support beach closures at the discretion of local authorities."

He also ordered beaches in Broward and Palm Beach counties to close for 11 days, following recommendations from local officials and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The governor's refusal to close most beaches to spring break crowds drew heavy criticism and litigation.

Newsom was on firmer ground in his claim about closing bars. DeSantis ordered all bars and nightclubs closed for 30 days. Restaurants did not close. His March 17 order said restaurants were limited to 50% customer capacity and had to separate seating by 6 feet.

Governors nationwide issued multiple orders in March 2020 in response to the pandemic. DeSantis issued an order March 1 to establish COVID-19 response protocol and direct a public health emergency. On March 4, Newsom declared a state of emergency to help California prepare for COVID-19.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a Clean California event in San Francisco, Thursday, Nov. 9, 2023.
Jeff Chiu
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AP
California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a Clean California event in San Francisco, Thursday, Nov. 9, 2023.

Book bans in Florida

When Hannity asked DeSantis about the Florida bill criticized as "don’t say gay," DeSantis held up a page from the graphic memoir "Gender Queer," with black markings over private parts. Many Florida school districts have banned the book.

Newsom said Florida had been on a "book-banning binge" under DeSantis: "One thousand four hundred and six books have been banned just last year under Ron DeSantis’ leadership." DeSantis replied that it was a "false narrative."

This stems from one group’s count and does not represent 1,406 books banned statewide.

PEN America, a group that opposes book bans, recorded 1,406 book ban cases in Florida across about half of the state’s school districts. PEN America’s definition of a ban is more expansive than those of other groups. The organization records a book ban whenever access to a previously available book is removed or restricted — temporarily or permanently — because of parent or community challenges, administrative decisions or direct or threatened action by lawmakers or other governmental officials. Books that are removed temporarily may not return to shelves for months.

New Florida laws made it easier for parents to object to books, resulting in more school districts banning books in the past couple of years.

A September Florida Department of Education report shows 20 of Florida’s 67 school districts and the statewide public Florida Virtual School removed 298 books in the 2022-23 school year. Some of those books were banned in multiple districts. Overall, school district officials received 1,218 objections about books.

Many of the objections were for books containing sexual or LGBTQ+ content and came from a small group of parents, some affiliated with conservative groups, such as Moms for Liberty, a Tampa Bay Times analysis found.

Prompted by Hannity to say whether the bans were state or local, DeSantis said they were "local." That disguises state policy’s influence on local choices.

Newsom also said, "What’s wrong with Amanda Gorman’s poetry?" suggesting it was banned. A parent at a South Florida school challenged Gorman’s poem "The Hill We Climb," which Gorman performed at Biden’s January 2021 inauguration. After a review, the K-through-eighth grade school moved the book to the library’s middle school section. It was not banned at the school, much less by the district or the state.

Tax policy

The governors sparred about taxes, with DeSantis asking how many people leave Florida for California because that state has a lower tax burden. "They come to Florida because they pay lower taxes," DeSantis said.

But Newsom said Florida "taxes low-income workers more than we tax millionaires and billionaires in the state of California."

Newsom has a point, although the two states have such different tax systems that it’s tricky to compare them. For instance, Florida has no income tax, but California does.

Among the 50 states, Florida has the nation’s 11th-lowest overall tax burden, while California has the fifth-highest, according to annual rankings by the Tax Foundation, a think tank that advocates for lower taxes.

But the overall tax burden doesn’t address differences between workers’ share of taxes.

A study by the liberal Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy examined whether state tax systems rely on higher-income taxpayers (progressive) or lower-income taxpayers (regressive). Newsom’s office said this is the study he referred to. The data, though, is from 2018.

It found that in California, the top 1% of households for incomes paid 12.4% of their income in state and local taxes. By comparison, in Florida, households in the bottom 20% of incomes paid 12.7% of their income in state and local taxes. By this metric, Newsom is correct.

Comparing the tax burden for the lowest 20% of households in income, California also has lower taxes. In California, households in the bottom 20% paid 10.5% of their income in taxes, compared with Florida’s 12.7%.

Meanwhile, wealthy taxpayers came out ahead in Florida, where the tax burden for the top 1% was 2.3% of income. That’s far lower than the 12.4% rate for California millionaires.

Florida’s crime rate

As DeSantis described a conversation with Newsom’s father-in-law, who moved to Florida, he claimed Florida was experiencing a "50-year low" in the crime rate. Newsom said DeSantis’ "own law enforcement" said the data shouldn’t be used.

What used to be an easy talking point about Florida’s declining crime became controversial this year after the agency changed how it reported its crime rate.

NBC News reported Sept. 20 that DeSantis’ talking point came from a database with information from law enforcement agencies representing about 57% of Florida’s population. The story quoted three unnamed former Florida Department of Law Enforcement staff members who said they had warned top officials against using the "50-year low" claim, because it was impossible to verify.

Florida’s transitioned to incident-based crime reporting, the new federal standard, rather than the summary-based reports it has used since the 1970s. With summary reporting, if one incident resulted in multiple crimes, only the most serious crimes would be reported. In 2021, the federal government stopped accepting this type of data and now requires states to report each crime.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement told PolitiFact in September that the 50-year low statistic still holds after additional agencies submitted data, representing around 75% of the population.

The FBI’s crime reporting database shows that 49 of 757 Florida law enforcement agencies participated in the FBI’s data collection in 2021. By contrast, in 2022, 367 Florida law enforcement agencies sent in data.

Florida’s abortion limits and DeSantis’ abortion survivor story

As Hannity pressed Newsom on whether he supported any abortion restrictions, Newsom attacked Florida’s abortion laws.

"He signed a bill banning any exceptions for rape and incest," Newsom said of DeSantis. "And then he said it didn't go far enough and decided to sign a six-week ban … that criminalizes women and criminalizes doctors."

DeSantis signed legislation in 2022 that outlawed abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. It does not make exceptions for cases of incest, rape or human trafficking but includes an exception for the mother’s life.

DeSantis signed a stricter bill in April that bans abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. Whether the law takes effect hinges on how the Florida Supreme Court rules in a lawsuit against the current 15-week ban. The 2023 law does contain exceptions, including to save the woman’s life or in cases of fatal fetal anomalies. Abortions for pregnancies involving rape, incest or human trafficking would be allowed until 15 weeks of pregnancy if a woman has documentation, such as a restraining order, police report or medical record.

The law penalizes physicians, but whether it also criminalizes women is less clear, so we have rated a similar claim Half True. The law says that anyone who "actively participates in" an abortion commits a third-degree felony, which opens the door to prosecutors charging women, but we don’t yet know whether they will or how courts would respond to such charges. DeSantis has also said that he doesn’t want women prosecuted, only doctors.

Defending the law, DeSantis repeated an anecdote from the first GOP presidential debate about a Floridian named Penny Hopper. Hopper is a real person, and an anti-abortion activist. Some of the details about her birth story have been called into question.

Hopper said she survived an abortion attempt in Florida in 1955. Her claim has been featured by anti-abortion groups and used to support "born alive" bills in state legislatures, which aim to protect infants who survive abortions, even though there are federal laws for that purpose.

In a video and in interviews, Hopper said she had been delivered around 23 weeks gestation after her mother went to a hospital in Wauchula, Florida, while experiencing bleeding. Hopper said the doctor induced labor, and she was born at 1 pound, 11 ounces, and that the doctor told staff to discard her "dead or alive." She said her grandmother found her the next day on the hospital porch in a bedpan. Then, Hopper said, a nurse volunteered to take her to a larger hospital that was about 40 miles away.

That a baby born at 23 weeks could survive overnight without medical attention in 1955 is medically dubious, experts said. From the 1950s through 1980, "newborn death was virtually ensured" for infants born at or before 24 weeks of gestation, The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology says on its website.

The Washington Post also reported that contemporaneous newspaper accounts offer a different scenario at the hospital, and said the staff spent days keeping her alive before arranging a police escort to rush her to another hospital.

Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by NBC News, Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023, at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County in Miami.
Rebecca Blackwell
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AP
Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by NBC News, Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023, at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County in Miami.

Literacy rates and learning loss

DeSantis and Newsom each said their state handled education better during the pandemic.

DeSantis said that in the most recent results of a widely tracked standardized test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, "Florida came in No. 3 for fourth grade reading. California was far, far behind."

This is accurate. Florida ranked third among states for fourth grade reading, after Massachusetts and Wyoming. California ranked 32nd.

On eighth grade reading, Florida ranked 21st, but still led California, which ranked 29th.

Newsom, meanwhile, said, "Ron DeSantis had more learning loss during COVID" in Florida than he had in California.

Measuring learning loss is complicated and varies by academic subject and age. But one study that tried to quantify how much students backslid overall during the pandemic supports Newsom’s statement.

In January 2023, McKinsey & Co., a consulting company, released a study of how National Assessment of Educational Progress results changed in each state from 2019 to 2022.

In the study, a 4-point drop in scores on the test was estimated to have produced 12 weeks of learning delay. Learning loss varied widely by state, with Hawaii and Alabama experiencing four weeks of loss and Delaware experiencing 32 weeks.

The study found that California students lost an average of nine weeks, compared with 12 weeks for Florida. That put California slightly below the 12-week national average and Florida slightly above it.

DeSantis criticized California for having "one of the lowest literacy rates in the country." He is correct — but he ignored that Florida’s literacy rate is nearly as low.

The federal Education Department uses a few metrics to measure literacy. The most comprehensive, calculated by modeling several measurements of literacy, has a fairly narrow range, from 252 (the lowest, for Louisiana) to 279 (the highest, for New Hampshire).

California has the sixth-lowest score of any state (257). But Florida has the ninth-lowest score at 259.

Violent crime statistics

Hannity said California’s levels of violent crime are "way higher than the national average." He showed a graphic with 2022 violent crime rates, based on FBI data. California had the highest rate, with 499.5 violent crimes per 100,000 people. The national average was 380.7 per 100,000, and Florida’s was 258.9 per 100,000. We checked the numbers in the graphic and found they were accurate.

Newsom pushed back on this narrative by focusing on one category of violent crime: murders. The other types of violent crime include forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault.

"Seven of the top 10 murder rates in the United States of America are red states," Newsom said.

Newsom is right, based on the voting patterns in the 2020 presidential election and 2020 state-by-state homicide rankings, according to an analysis of federal data by Third Way, a center-left policy group.

In descending order, the top 10 states for homicide rates were Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Missouri, Arkansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Illinois, Maryland and Georgia. The first seven on that list all supported Trump in the 2020 election; the final three supported President Joe Biden. The analysis also found that "solidly red states have dominated the top 10 murder rate states for the past decade" or more.

Newsom also said that Florida "has a 66% higher gun death rate than the state of California."

This is close. According to 2020 federal data, Florida’s gun death rate was 14.1 per 100,000 residents, compared with 9.0 per 100,000 in California. That’s 57% higher for Florida.

However, both governors can point to other statistics to bolster their case as the safer locale.

  • California’s overall homicide rate of 5.7 per 100,000 people was higher than Florida’s rate of 5.0 per 100,000. Both states rank below the national rate of 6.3. 
  • Florida’s gun homicide rate, 5.87 per 100,000, was higher than California’s, 4.65.

Americans in Israel

DeSantis did not tell the full story of how the Biden administration evacuated Americans from Israel after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack.

"Biden stranded a lot of American citizens over there who were trying to get home," DeSantis said. "So, I did an executive order in Florida, and we sent planes over Israel right in the aftermath of Oct. 7, and we saved over 700 Americans, mostly Floridians, but not all, because Biden wouldn’t do it."

About 700 Americans flew to Florida on four flights from Israel, DeSantis’ office said. The flights were free for passengers.

But the Biden administration also brought Americans home. It offered 6,900 seats to Americans in Israel seeking to depart by air, land or sea. As of Oct. 31, about 1,500 U.S. citizens and their family members had departed using federal government transport, a State Department spokesperson previously told PolitiFact.

The first flight landed in Athens, Greece. News reports said that the State Department flew Americans to European cities where they could book flights to the U.S. on commercial airlines. Florida officials offered to transport Americans who were in Athens to the U.S.

Per long-standing federal law and policy, the government seeks reimbursement from citizens for the cost of transportation.

Squabbling over Special Olympics

DeSantis and Newsom sparred over how the other treated the Special Olympics. Newsom said it was "disgraceful" that DeSantis threatened to fine the Special Olympics $27 million.

DeSantis fired back that Newsom "wanted the athletes marginalized."

What were they talking about?

In June 2022, ahead of a planned Special Olympics event in Orlando, the Florida Department of Health told the organization that its vaccine requirement conflicted with state law barring any business from asking for proof of COVID-19 vaccination. After Florida threatened to fine the Special Olympics $27 million, the organization eliminated its vaccine requirement.

Florida’s action prompted "an emotional response" for Newsom, he told the Sacramento Bee. He tweeted: "Ron DeSantis’ values on full display: Bullying. The. Special. Olympics."

In response, DeSantis emphasized how lifting the vaccine requirement enabled some participants to participate in the games even though health concerns prevented them from getting vaccinated. He cited participants such as Isabella Valle, who has cerebral palsy, epilepsy and a shunt in her brain.

Both governors have ties to the Special Olympics. Newsom headed the leadership committee for the Special Olympics’ World Games in Los Angeles in 2015, and his mother helped families adopt children with disabilities, the Bee reported.

DeSantis and his wife, Casey were honorary co-chairs of the 2022 Special Olympics.

Mapping human feces in San Francisco

During a conversation about homelessness, DeSantis pulled out a sheet of paper from his suit jacket and revealed a map of San Francisco filled with brown and black pinpoint icons.

"Well, this is an app where they plot the human feces that are found on the streets of San Francisco," said DeSantis. "And you see how almost the whole thing is covered? Because that is what has happened in one of the previous greatest cities this country's ever had. Human feces is now a fact of life."

DeSantis’ map comes from Open the Books, a nonprofit government watchdog. But what DeSantis pointed to isn’t current.

The map plotted public reports of human feces found in San Francisco from 2011 to 2019. (More than 118,000 people reported their findings to San Francisco’s nonemergency line.)

Newsom was San Francisco mayor from 2004 to 2011 and was California’s lieutenant governor from 2011 to 2019.

Open the Books does not seem to have a map of current data. But there is another map created by two Los Angeles teachers, showing reports from July 2019 to July 2020. That map has fewer data points than the visual DeSantis offered.

RELATED: The Ron DeSantis and Gavin Newsom economies, in 8 charts

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PolitiFact Staff