Republican presidential candidates vying for their party’s nomination battled it out Wednesday night in Milwaukee in the first debate of the 2024 primary season.
But as they weighed in on everything from the economy and abortion to the legal woes of Hunter Biden and the absent Donald Trump, some of the eight contenders made claims that do not line up with reality.
Here’s what you need to know about the false and misleading claims made on, and off, the debate stage:
Former Vice President Mike Pence claimed 70% of Americans support a nationwide 15-week abortion ban.
"Can’t we have a minimum standard in every state in the nation thats says when a baby is capable of feeling pain, an abortion cannot be allowed?” Pence asked. “A 15-week ban is an idea whose time has come. It's supported by 70 percent of the American people, but it’s going to take unapologetic leadership.”
Most recent public polling, taken in the wake of the Supreme Court decision to end the federal right to an abortion, suggests a significantly lower number of Americans support a 15-week ban than Pence claimed.
The Pence campaign shared a June 2023 survey sponsored by the influential anti-abortion organization Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America with PolitiFact, which reported 77% of voters said they would support an abortion ban at 15 weeks or less.
But that poll asked if “abortion should be prohibited after a baby can feel pain at 15 weeks" -- asserting as fact a false statement disputed by broad scientific consensus.
“The science conclusively establishes that a human fetus does not have the capacity to experience pain until after at least 24–25 weeks,” according to a fact sheet published by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, a professional association of 60,000 physicians. “Every major medical organization that has examined this issue and peer-reviewed studies on the matter have consistently reached the conclusion that abortion before this point does not result in the perception of pain in a fetus.”
Beyond that, a June poll from The Associated Press and NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found 45% of Americans believe abortion should not be allowed at 15 weeks. In a July Marquette Law School national poll, 47% of adults supported a 15-week ban. And in a poll by The Economist/YouGov from last September, only 39% of Americans supported the idea. In each poll, the percentage of Americans opposed to a 15-week ban was higher than those who supported it.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis also made a false claim during the discussion on abortion, accusing Democrats of trying to “allow abortion all the way up to the moment of birth.” Legislation passed by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives last year and another bill introduced by a bipartisan coalition lead by Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., this year seek to restore the protections of Roe v. Wade, which allowed restrictions on abortion after the viability of the fetus before it was overturned by the Supreme Court last year. The man DeSantis and the other candidates hope to face off with, President Joe Biden, expressed his support for similar legislation.
The eight Republican presidential candidates on the debate stage were asked to raise their hands if they believed human behavior is causing climate change.
Not a single hand went up.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis shut down the question and attacked the “corporate media.” Echoing the words of Trump, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., insisted that more serious environmental threats are coming from China, India and Africa.
Just one Republican, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, said during Wednesday night's debate in Milwaukee that climate change “is real.”
“I'm the only person who isn't bought and paid for so I can say this,” said entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who is currently polling in third in most national polls after Trump and DeSantis. “The climate change agenda is a hoax. The climate change agenda is a hoax.”
The vast scientific consensus on climate change is that it is real, extremely likely due to human activity, and is actively contributing to the increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events, including heat waves and large storms. The rate of increasing temperatures has doubled since 1981 compared to the previous 100 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Instead of participating in the debate, Trump sat it out and was interviewed by former Fox News host Tucker Carlson in a pretaped discussion that was posted to social media minutes before the debate kicked off.
The goal was to counterprogram his would-be rivals and take his pitch to a larger audience, which he very likely did. But the viewership numbers Trump and his campaign cited in the 24 hours after the debate -- over 200 million on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter -- are misleading.
Fox News drew in over 12.8 million viewers across its main channel and Fox Business Network. The debate was simulcast on the right-wing streaming service Rumble, which reported nearly 1.7 million views on the video as of Thursday.
Trump and his campaign, meanwhile, boasted hundreds of millions of views on the Carlson interview. But X counts views in a way that boosts totals even when a user doesn’t watch a second of the video.
“Anyone who is logged into Twitter who views a Tweet counts as a view, regardless of where they see the Tweet (e.g. Home, Search, Profiles, etc.) or whether or not they follow the author. If you’re the author, looking at your own Tweet also counts as a view,” according to X’s view count FAQ.
That means even users merely scrolling by the video on their feed, without taking a second look, will be counted as a view.
In his closing remarks, Ramaswamy credited the U.S. Constitution with helping the 13 colonies win the American Revolution against British rule.
“The U.S. Constitution, it is the strongest guarantor of freedom in human history. That is what won us the American Revolution. That is what will win us the revolution of 2024,” Ramaswamy said to cheers.
The American Revolution lasted from 1775 until 1783. The U.S. Constitution was written in 1787, ratified in 1788, and went into effect in 1789.
Ramaswamy has called for a constitutional amendment mandating civics tests for Americans under the age of 25 to be allowed to vote.