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Your Final Debate Briefing Book: The Policies

UPDATED: Oct. 18, 2016

Jobs, income and the economy

When President Obama took office in 2009, the U.S. was in the midst of the worst recession since before World War II. Now, barring a sudden meltdown in the next four months, the next president will inherit an economy that is greatly improved by almost any measure. But the recovery has been disappointingly slow, particularly when it comes to Americans’ wallets. That leaves Obama — and by extension Hillary Clinton — open to criticism. View both candidates’ economic promises with skepticism, though — presidents can influence the economy, but they can’t control it. — Ben Casselman

When Donald Trump says …

The “real” unemployment rate is 20 percent (or 42 percent).

Baloney. The official unemployment rate, which stands at 5 percent as of September, can be misleading, because it doesn’t count people who have stopped looking for work. (In fact, the rate rose in September because more people started searching for jobs.) But the only way to get anywhere close to 20 percent (let alone 42 percent) is to count retired grandmothers, high school students and the disabled as “unemployed.” (And besides, recently Americans have been returning to the labor force.)

When Clinton says …

The U.S. private sector has added 15 million new jobs under Obama.

The 15 million figure is true, though it counts from February 2010, when the job market bottomed out, not from January 2009, when Obama took office. (The private sector has added about 11 million jobs during Obama’s full term.) But while 15 million jobs may sound impressive, it represents fairly weak growth by historical standards, at least given how deep a hole the recession created. It took until May of 2014 for the U.S. to regain all the jobs lost in the recession; adjusting for population growth, we still aren’t all the way back. Give the recovery credit for consistency, though: The U.S. economy has added jobs for 72 straight months, the longest streak on record.

When Trump says …

Incomes are down under Obama.

This claim looked a lot stronger before last month, when the Census Bureau reported that median household income rose a record 5.2 percent in 2015. The report still showed median income slightly below prerecession levels (and below when Obama took office), but other data sources disagree. Still, even with the recent rebound, U.S. households have seen far slower income growth since 2000 than they did in the previous decades.

When either candidate says …

They’ll bring back manufacturing jobs.

Don’t bet on it. The U.S. has lost millions of manufacturing jobs due to a combination of foreign competition and automation. Neither of those trends is going away anytime soon, which means that while it’s possible that policy changes could slow the decline in jobs, there’s no way they could reverse it. Better to focus on how to improve the 80 percent of private jobs that are now found in the service sector.

Further reading:
The Job Market Will Be Solid On Election Day
Why Critics Of Free Trade Are Talking China, Not NAFTA
The 2016 Election Is All About Dividing Up The Pie
The Economy Is Better — Why Don’t Voters Believe It?




Taxes are one of the few policy areas where both candidates have released detailed policy proposals. (Trump, in fact, has had several.) It’s also an area where they have some of their sharpest differences. Clinton wants to raise taxes on the rich to pay for a variety of new spending priorities, such as paid family leave. Trump wants to cut taxes on individuals and businesses, which he says would boost economic growth. — Ben Casselman

When Trump says …

He “understand[s] the tax code better than anybody that’s ever run for president.”

It’s not clear whether this is even true — Trump doesn’t prepare his own tax returns, after all. But even assuming he does know the tax system, he isn’t proposing to change many of the policies that let rich people (including him) avoid taxes. He wants to close the so-called “carried-interest loophole,” which helps certain high earners (mostly managers of private-equity firms) reduce their tax burdens. But that loophole affects only a small subset of wealthy Americans. Other Trump proposals, such as eliminating the estate tax and the Alternative Minimum Tax, would help the rich. And his campaign has refused to clarify whether his proposal to reduce the corporate tax rate to 15 percent would apply to so-called “pass-through businesses” — a potentially enormous loophole that would benefit Trump personally.

When Clinton says …

Her plan would raise taxes on the rich.

According to a new analysis from the Tax Policy Center, a joint project of the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution, Clinton’s plan would raise taxes by $1.4 trillion over a decade, with virtually all of that coming from the top 1 percent of earners. Low- and middle-income households would see a very small tax cut. (Her plan would also add various new deductions and credits, making the tax code as a whole more complex.) The TPC’s analysis finds that Trump’s plan, by contrast, would cut taxes by $6.2 trillion over a decade, with the rich benefiting the most. The number of Americans who pay no tax would also rise. (An analysis from the conservative Tax Foundation reaches broadly similar conclusions.) But some middle-class families could pay more in taxes under Trump’s plan, according to one analysis.

When Trump says …

His plan would boost economic growth.

Hard to say! All else equal, lower taxes probably do increase growth, though not by nearly as much as advocates often claim. But Trump’s plan would probably increase the deficit by trillions, which (again, all else equal) would be bad for growth. In general, economists don’t agree about the effect of tax policies. But pretty much no serious economist believes that Trump’s plan would have the effect his campaign says it would.

Further reading
Don’t Believe Trump’s Tax Math — Or Anyone Else’s
No One Can Agree How Much The Presidential Candidates’ Tax Plans Will Cost
Donald Trump Wants To Eliminate Taxes For 31 Million Americans




The foreign-born share of the population is rising and is on track to hit a record high later this century, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of census data. But the trend for illegal immigration looks very different: The undocumented population fell during the recession and has held basically steady around 11 million ever since. The U.S. immigrant population — documented and not — is also diversifying. The number of new immigrants from Asia now exceeds the number from Latin America, and the number of undocumented immigrants from Mexico has been falling since 2007. — Christianna Silva and Ben Casselman

When Trump says …

He wants to build a wall on the Mexican border.

As many as half of undocumented immigrants entered the country legally, then overstayed their visas; a wall would do nothing to keep them out. (Trump also backs a new system to better track legal entrants.) Data from both the U.S. and Mexican governments shows the number of people crossing the Mexican border illegally has fallen sharply since the mid-2000s. According to Pew, net migration from Mexico has been negative since the recession, meaning more people have left the U.S. than have entered it.

When Trump says …

Immigrants drive up crime.

There is essentially no evidence to suggest immigrants pose a greater risk than native-born Americans. If anything, the opposite is true: A report by the Immigration Policy Center found immigrants have lower rates of violent crime than native citizens. Numerous other studies have found essentially the same thing.

When Trump says …

Immigration pushes down wages.

There is widespread agreement among economists that immigration is good for the economy as a whole. But the story is more complicated when it comes to immigration’s effect on low-skilled workers. A famous study from David Card found that even a sudden influx of immigrants didn’t hurt the wages of less-educated American workers, but Harvard economist George Borjas recently re-evaluated the evidence and found a bigger impact. Economists have been fighting about it ever since.

When Clinton says …

She will continue Obama’s efforts to protect DREAMers.

After failing to pass immigration reform in Congress, Obama took a series of executive actions to shield from deportation so-called DREAMers — undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. as children — and their families. A tie in the Supreme Court blocked part of that policy from taking effect. But while Obama has tried to protect some undocumented immigrants, he has also deported about 2 million people in his eight years in office. That’s nine times the rate of 20 years ago, and more than his predecessor, George W. Bush.

Further reading:
The Consequences: A Look Behind The Claims On Immigration
Everything* Donald Trump’s Immigration Plan Gets Wrong
Donald Trump’s Immigration Statements Will Find A Home In His Party
Immigration Is Changing Much More Than the Immigration Debate
Undocumented Immigrants Aren’t Who You Think They Are
Immigration Isn’t Driving Hispanic Population Growth



Crime and criminal justice

The murder rate rose last year, particularly in large cities, after decades of declines, and is continuing to rise in 2016. But other types of crime, including violent crime, haven’t seen the same increase and remain near multidecade lows. High-profile incidents such as the June attack on an Orlando nightclub command a large share of media attention, but mass shootings represent a small fraction of murders. (An increasing share of them are terrorist attacks, however.) Meanwhile, police officers continue to kill about 1,000 people each year despite calls from activists to reduce the number, and black Americans are killed at the highest rates. Targeted attacks on the police in Dallas, Baton Rouge and Palm Springs killed tenofficers, though overall the job of policing continues to get safer. And proposed criminal-justice reforms stalled in Congress. — Carl Bialik

When Trump says …

A national right to carry guns will help law-abiding gun owners defend themselves.

There’s no evidence concealed-carry laws increase or decrease crime, according to a study last year from Texas A&M researchers based on county-level permits and arrest data, though other studies — many of them based on broader state-level data — have found mixed results. Instead, the causation may run in the opposite direction: A study this year from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis found that higher rates of violent crime predict more people getting concealed-carry permits.

When Clinton says …

Common-sense” gun control could reduce gun deaths.

Evidence from Missouri and Connecticut suggests that universal background checks could help reduce both homicide and suicide using guns. There is less evidence to support other restrictions on gun ownership that Clinton supports, such as bans on the sale of assault weapons.

When Trump says …

Project Exile is a “tremendous” program to reduce gun violence.

Project Exile, which is backed by both Trump and the National Rifle Association, imposed harsh federal sentences on people convicted of crimes involving guns. Clinton’s running mate, Tim Kaine, also supported the program as mayor of Richmond, Virginia, where the strategy was first developed. But despite such bipartisan backing, the program’s effectiveness is unproven.

When Clinton says …

Equipping every police department with body cameras will make policing safer.

Studies show mixed results. Some departments even had more violent interactions with the public after their officers started wearing body cameras. Advocates and departments like the idea of creating a record of all interactions, both for deterrence and for litigating disputes, but in practice the cameras often aren’t recording during the most heated confrontations.

When either candidate says …

Preventing people with mentalillness from owning guns will prevent crime.

It might prevent some, but fewer than 5 percent of gun homicides are committed by people with mental-illness diagnoses. People suffering from mental illness are more likely to be victims of gun violence, including suicide.

Further reading:
From Wallace To Trump, The Evolution of “Law And Order”
Guns Like The AR-15 Were Never Fully Banned
Gun Deaths in America



Health care

When Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law in 2010, it was the biggest overhaul of the health care system since Medicare and Medicaid were established in 1965. Six years and multiple Supreme Court cases later, the law is as divisive as ever. In recent months, Obamacare has endured a new spate of negative headlines as several big insurers said they were pulling out of the law’s insurance marketplaces in some states. Nonetheless, there has been considerably less talk about health care this election season, though both candidates have included the high cost of premiums and pharmaceuticals, as well as growing deductibles, in their stump speeches. — Anna Maria Barry-Jester

When Trump says …

He will ask Congress to repeal Obamacare on his first day in office.

It’s unclear how realistic it would be for Trump to fully repeal the law (among other things, Congress has the power to repeal laws, not the President). Though the law as a whole is viewed unfavorably by 47 percent of Americans, some of its provisions — such as barring companies from discriminating based on pre-existing conditions — are much more popular. And millions of Americans now receive subsidized insurance through the health insurance marketplaces created under the law. Trump has said he would replace the law with policies that follow free-market principles to bring down costs, but he has provided few details, including about what would happen to people who have health insurance options created by the ACA.

When Clinton says …

20 million Americans have health care because of the ACA.

This claim is true, according to multiplesources. The newly insured include people eligible for Medicaid under the law, people buying marketplace plans with subsidies, people with pre-existing conditions who may have previously been unable to find coverage, and young adults under age 26 who can now stay on their parent’s plans. But 29 million people remain uninsured, and millions more are worried about the cost and quality of their plans.

When Trump says …

Obamacare made premiums go up 35, 45, 55 percent.

True, but only if you cherry-pick the plans with the largest increases. Premiums are going up for everyone all over the country, just as they were before the Affordable Care Act. On average, they are increasing at a slower pace than they were before the law was passed. Some plans sold on the insurance marketplaces created under the law will see premium increases as high as Trump has claimed, but that’s only the worst of the bunch; 7 percent of plans will see increases of more than 30 percent, according to an analysis by Agile Health Insurance. The most common plans are predicted to increase by 10 percent. However, many people won’t see those increases: Around 85 percent of people purchasing on the marketplace receive subsidies that will offset the increase in costs. That’s perhaps of little solace to the millions of people who buy plans off-market and don’t receive subsidies but who are also seeing premium increases.

Further reading:
Obamacare Has Increased Insurance Coverage Everywhere
Insurers Can Make Obamacare Work, But They Need Help From Congress
Rising Obamacare premiums are still lower than employer-sponsored health insurance




Conservatives routinely criticize Obama for waging a “war on fossil fuels,” but oil and natural gas production have both soared during his eight years in office. (Coal is another story.) Gasoline prices, which rose early in Obama’s term, have since fallen sharply. But use of renewable sources of energy has also risen, largely because of an increase in wind and solar power generation. The rise of renewables and — even more importantly — the displacement of coal by natural gas has helped drive down U.S. carbon emissions. But progress on climate change has been slow — our total energy use isn’t growing, but it’s not falling either, and more than 80 percent is still in the form of fossil fuels. — Maggie Koerth-Baker

When Trump says …

America needs to be energy independent.

We damn near are already. In 2015, the U.S. produced 89 quadrillion BTU worth of energy, equivalent to 91 percent of our total consumption. Meanwhile, net energy imports — imports minus exports — have fallen for 10 years in a row. In 2015, the U.S. imported 24 percent of its oil, the lowest share since 1970. And more than a third of that oil came from Canada, which accounts for more of our imports than all the OPEC countries combined.

When Clinton says …

We’ll generate half our electricity from clean sources by the end of her first term.

A third of our electricity already comes from clean sources. If, that is, you count nuclear energy as clean, which Clinton does. Clinton also promises the U.S. will have half a billion solar panels by the end of her first term. That’s a weird way to measure solar — the Solar Energy Industries Association, like just about everybody else, puts out statistics in terms of electric generation capacity, not number of panels. But the SEIA estimates there were 102 million solar panels in the U.S. midway through 2016. So Clinton’s promise would require massive growth in solar installation.

When Trump says …

There’s a war on coal.

Coal’s woes are real: U.S. coal consumption fell 13 percent from 2014 to 2015 alone. Environmental regulation likely played a part in that decline, and the Energy Information Administration says Obama’s currently stalled Clean Power Plan is likely to lead to further reductions in coal use over time. But coal’s biggest enemy isn’t Obama; it’s natural gas. The EIA also says that the bulk of coal’s decline since Obama took office is due to a “market-driven response” — namely the fracking-led boom in natural-gas production, which has driven down gas prices and led many power companies to switch away from coal.

When Anybody Mentions …

Clean coal

This is a fudge phrase — it’s difficult to know what they’re actually talking about. Some “clean coal” technologies and tools are highly successful and in widespread use, and others, well, aren’t. At one end, you’ve got flue gas desulfurization — removing sulfur dioxide from power plant emissions. That’s the process that solved the acid rain crisis. At the other end, there’s carbon capture and storage, the process that’s supposed to make coal compatible with efforts to halt climate change. In theory, CCS does what it sounds like it does — grabs carbon dioxide before it gets released into the atmosphere and stores it somewhere safe. But CCS is not established technology, at least not as applied to electricity generation. There is one commercial-scale power plant in the world doing this, though there will likely be two by the end of the year. In both cases, the captured carbon dioxide is used to help produce oil, itself a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Further reading
We Use a Whole Bunch Of Energy Every Summer (And A Lot Of It Goes To Waste)
The Conventional Wisdom On Oil Is Always Wrong
Saudi Arabia Is Winning Its War Against The U.S. Oil Industry
The Science Of Trump: Energy, Space And Military Tech
How The Oil And Gas Industry Awakened Oklahoma’s Sleeping Fault Lines



Child care and family leave

The United States is the only rich country without guaranteed paid leave to care for a child. That could change soon. Both Clinton and Trump have plans for paid leave, as well as other policies to help family budgets. Trump made history in being the first Republican presidential nominee with a paid maternity leave plan — a reflection of the strong bipartisan support paid leave has among voters. The candidates differ on the generosity of leave and on how to pay for it. Clinton has also vowed to cap child care costs and double the child tax credit; Trump wants to let parents deduct child care expenses from their taxes. Whoever wins in November, the potential for real legislation on these issues is high. — Andrew Flowers

When Donald Trump says …

My opponent has no child care plan.

Actually, Clinton does. Her plan would offer up to 12 weeks of paid parental leave and it would cover at least two-thirds of a parent’s income; she says tax increases on the wealthy will pay for it. Trump’s plan, by contrast, would offer up to six weeks of paid maternity leave (sorry, dads) paid at the rate of unemployment insurance, which is typically a fraction of a worker’s paycheck. (The national average is about $300 per week.) Trump doesn’t plan to raise taxes to pay for paid leave. Instead, it will funded by “cutting fraud” in unemployment insurance programs. (Few economists think that would work.)

When Hillary Clinton says …

“We’ve got to put quality child care within the reach of every family.

Clinton has proposed to cap child care costs at 10 percent of a family’s income, but exactly how she would do that is unclear. Clinton also wants to double the child care tax credit to $2,000. More importantly, she would make the tax credit refundable, meaning that families that earn too little to pay income taxes could get the credit back in cash. Research shows that could be an effective way to combat poverty.

When Donald Trump says …

His plan will “bring relief to working and middle-class families.”

Some families will be left out. Trump’s proposal allows families to deduct child care expenses from their taxes and caps it at the average cost of child care in their state. Here’s the rub: This is a tax deduction, not a tax refund, meaning you have to first owe taxes in order to benefit. Many poor and middle-class Americans don’t have a tax liability to begin with and thus wouldn’t benefit from his plan.

When anybody mentions …

The cost of child care

Remember that the average cost of child care varies a lot, according to data from ChildCare Aware, a nonprofit advocacy group. The average annual cost of full-time infant child care ranges from over $22,000 in Washington D.C., and more than $17,000 in Massachusetts — to $4,800 in Mississippi.

Further reading:
Marco Rubio’s Paid Family Leave Plan May Not Work
Dads Are Big Winners In San Francisco’s Paid Family Leave Law
Kitchen Table Politics: The Cost Of Caring For Kids



Terrorism and security

Between the 9/11 attacks and the end of last year, 128 people died in terrorist attacks in the U.S. But terror is on the rise in the U.S. and the West, including the Orlando mass shooting that killed 49 people in June and possibly the linked bomb attacks in New York and New Jersey last month. Four in five registered voters name terrorism as a “very important” issue, ranking it behind only the economy. — Carl Bialik

When Trump says …

He wants “extreme vetting from certain areas of the world” of people who want to enter the U.S., to prevent terrorism.

Most of the deadliest recent attacks were committed by people already in this country, not recent immigrants, and not always by Muslims. In the second presidential debate, Trump singled out Syrian refugees as needing “extreme vetting,” saying they pose a terrorist threat. But the Cato Institute estimates that the chance of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack by a refugee since 1975 is 1 in 3.64 billion per year.

When Clinton says …

We need a National Commission on Encryption to help decode messages on suspected terrorists’ devices.

Keep in mind that encrypted electronic messages are just one tool used by terrorists. They also use so-called burner phones — disposables that authorities wouldn’t know to link to suspects. And when terrorists use encrypted chat platforms, they’re often using ones not based in the U.S. — so what’s needed may be an international commission, not a national one.

When Trump says …

We should incorporate profiling into our counterterrorism efforts.

He has repeatedly praised Israel for its security success. He has in particular cited the country’s use of profiling, comments widely interpreted to mean he is advocating the profiling of Arabs and Muslims. (Trump denied that was his intent.) Profiling is just one part of Israeli security, and some security experts say it’s far from the most vital one. They also doubt it could work in the same way, or with the same effectiveness, in the U.S.

When either candidate says …

Let’s bar people on the do-not-fly list from buying guns.

Remember that the no-fly list includes plenty of people whom it shouldn’t — and that many recent attacks, including the Orlando nightclub shooting in June, have been carried out by people who weren’t on the list.

Further reading:
Voters Turn To Trusted Authorities After Terrorist Attacks
Americans Are Worried About Terrorism, And That Could Help The GOP
Most Republicans Have Negative Views Of Muslims — And Toward A Religious Test



Nuclear issues

In a speech in Prague early in his presidency, Obama envisioned a “world without nuclear weapons.” He vowed to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, particularly to terrorists; to reduce the role of nuclear force in U.S. security strategy; and to negotiate a new arms-reduction treaty with Russia. Eight years later, he has accomplished some of those goals, including a deal with Russia and a highly controversial one with Iran, but he has faced criticism for not doing more to prevent proliferation and secure nuclear material. Clinton and Trump broadly agree that using nuclear weapons is not wise, but that “using” them — that is, exploiting the side effects of nuclear power — can be a legitimate means of achieving foreign policy goals. Still, there are significant differences between the candidates. — Walt Hickey

When Trump says

The Iran deal is one of the worst deals I have ever seen.

The Iran deal is all about costs and benefits. Under the 2015 agreement, Iran gave up a lot: It has to shut down most of its centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium. It can’t use its remaining centrifuges to enrich uranium beyond 3.67 percent — bombs require about 90 percent — and it has to dramatically reduce its uranium stockpiles. All that means it would take Iran a year to get enough fuel for a bomb, according to the White House, rather than two to three months without the deal. In exchange, the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, China and Russia lifted the sanctions related to the nuclear program, unfroze funds and let the country keep its nuclear infrastructure. That’s a lot of concessions to swallow for many in the U.S.

When Clinton says…

She was responsible for securing a massive reduction in nuclear weapons

Not quite. The New START treaty with Russia does lower the number of active nuclear weapons that the U.S. and Russia can hold. However, there haven’t actually been Russian reductions in weapons since the treaty. More broadly, reducing the number of warheads held by two Cold War superpowers matters less than limiting the number of countries with weapons at all. Non-proliferation is better served by, say, ensuring Iran doesn’t obtain 20 nuclear warheads for a minimum deterrence force rather than Russia shedding a few hundred warheads.

When Trump says …

It is only a matter of time before Saudi Arabia, Japan and South Korea get nukes. We’re better off if they protect themselves. Also, we defend them for free, and they need to start paying up.

It is far from a guarantee that those nations will obtain nuclear weapons. And if they do, there will be major consequences for regional stability and security. As for paying up, the U.S. derives significant benefits from its alliances. For one thing, arms deals through the Defense Security Cooperation Agency have helped American arms manufacturers make fortunes selling their wares to foreign powers precisely like the ones Trump mentions. The U.S. also maintains military bases in allied countries, which provides financial and nonfinancial benefits. And the U.S.’s contribution of merely 22 percent of the NATO budget is what Trump might call a great, big, beautiful deal for us.


Ben Casselman was a senior editor and the chief economics writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Carl Bialik was FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for news.

Anna Maria Barry-Jester is a senior reporter at Kaiser Health News and California Healthline, and formerly a reporter for FiveThirtyEight.

Christianna Silva was FiveThirtyEight’s fall 2016 politics intern.

Andrew Flowers wrote about economics and sports for FiveThirtyEight.

Walt Hickey was FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.

Maggie Koerth was a senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.