NPR logo A Debate Fact-Check: Say, Is It So, Joe?

A Debate Fact-Check: Say, Is It So, Joe?

The candidates were all smiles at the moment this photo was taken, but the debate was often contentious. Mario Tama/Getty Images hide caption

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Mario Tama/Getty Images

The candidates were all smiles at the moment this photo was taken, but the debate was often contentious.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

In Focus

NPR's post-debate analysis

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The third and final presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., is in the history books. This was the last scheduled opportunity for Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama to go mano a mano on prime-time television before the Nov. 4 election.

Both men shook hands, smiled on occasion and acknowledged the long, hard slog toward the election. Obama stumbled at times. McCain referred to Freddie Mae, instead of Freddie Mac, and had a little trouble pronouncing Joe "the Plumber" Wurzelbacher's last name. (For future reference, Senator, The Associated Press reports that it's pronounced whur-zell-BAHK-er.)

With the help of NPR reporters, let's see if the candidates got some other facts straight.

The Campaign

Not too long into the evening, McCain pressed Obama about his association with the community organizing group ACORN that has been accused of registering phantom voters.

In regard to ACORN, says Peter Overby, who writes about power, money and influence for NPR, Obama presented, as usual, what you might call the narrowest possible view of his connections. The true relationship is less than clear, given ACORN's complex organization. For more details, go to Overby's story.

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At one point, McCain and Obama sparred over who was running more negative ads. Obama said McCain's ad buys were 100 percent negative; McCain said that wasn't true and that Obama was spending more on negative ads. Overby says they're both essentially right.

The Wisconsin Advertising Project (at the University of Wisconsin-Madison) found that McCain's percentage of negative ads was higher than Obama's and that around the end of September it tipped to nearly 100 percent negative. At the same time, oddly, Obama's mix became roughly two-thirds positive. But, Overby adds, when McCain said Obama was spending more on negative ads, he was correct — Obama is spending more on everything than any other presidential candidate ever. That's because, as McCain noted, Obama opted out of public financing. McCain also opted out of public financing — in the primaries. "As noble as public financing might be," Overby says, "candidates will go without it when they can because it comes with spending limits."

National Security

Obama commended McCain for standing up to the Bush administration on torture. McCain did insist that the armed forces follow the Army Field Manual guidelines on interrogation, according to NPR Capitol Hill correspondent David Welna, and that did become law. But McCain gave in to the administration's insistence that U.S. officials who are not in the armed forces not be constrained by the Army Field Manual.

This is widely regarded, Welna says, among human-rights advocates as a capitulation, since even military officers can "sheep dip" by temporarily stepping out of their roles as members of the military to use interrogation techniques not permitted by the Army Field Manual.


In the debate, McCain blamed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac for starting the housing crisis that led to the economic crisis. He said the government-sponsored enterprises pushed too hard to let people of modest means buy homes. On the other hand, McCain also says we should allow families to remain in homes and realize the American dream. Welna points out that it's not possible to have it both ways.

Foreign Policy

McCain said that Obama's vice presidential candidate, Sen. Joseph Biden, had a plan to divide Iraq into three countries. That is not what Biden proposed, says NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen. In an op-ed that Biden wrote in The Washington Post about how his plan was to decentralize power in Iraq, he said the central government would be in charge of border security and the distribution of oil revenue.


Obama said he will offer a tax cut to 95 percent of Americans. Republicans point out that that's impossible since a third of Americans don't pay income taxes at all. Technically the Republican critics are right, says NPR correspondent Chris Arnold. Those people would get a "refundable tax credit" — sort of a tax-rebate check. Obama says it's basically a tax cut because those people pay other types of taxes, such as payroll taxes. The Republicans respond that it will be like a welfare check, a sort of handout to the poor. McCain can't be too opposed to these sorts of tax credits since he supports the same "refundable tax credits" to help people pay for health care.

Health Care

Subsidies to insurance companies, Obama said, are about $15 billion per year. Actually, according to the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, they add up to about $10 billion. But NPR health policy correspondent Julie Rovner says Obama was correct that it's basically just pure profit to the companies. She adds that Democrats have been complaining about it since the Medicare Modernization Act — which boosted payments to entice more insurers to participate in Medicare — was passed in 2003.

McCain says he doesn't oppose federal funding for stem-cell research. It's true; he doesn't. But, Rovner says, McCain's aides have been very cagey about saying whether, as president, McCain would lift President Bush's current restrictions on funding for embryonic stem-cell research, which McCain has voted for in the past.

Obama said he will save the average family $2,500 in premiums on health care through his cost-cutting measures. Many analysts say that's optimistic, Rovner reports.

McCain said he will give every American family a $5,000 tax credit to help buy health insurance. That's true, Rovner says — but individuals would get only $2,500. McCain also says he wants to put medical records "online," like the VA does. He means computerize them, not literally put them online for anyone to see. Obama wants to do that, too. In fact, the cost-cutting proposals of the McCain and Obama plans overlap considerably.

When McCain said that the diagnosis of autism is on the rise, he was right, reports NPR's science correspondent Richard Harris. However, as the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts it: "It is unclear how much of this increase is due to changes in how we identify and classify ASDs [autism spectrum disorders] in people, and how much is due to a true increase in prevalence."

For even more checked facts, check out NPR's political blog: Vox Politics.