FACT CHECK: New York Times Misleads On DeSantis-Newsom Debate Fact Checks
Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis claimed during his debate with California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom that Florida had a lower “standardized COVID death rate than California” and that California had a lower population for the first time under Newsom. The New York Times (NYT) rated two claims made by Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis as “false” and “misleading.”
A study published in the Lancet found that after adjusting for age and other factors, Florida had a lower COVID-19 death rate than California. California did lose population for the first time in its history under Newsom’s governorship.
Check Your Fact looked into two NYT fact-checks of claims made by DeSantis in the debate.
“Florida had a lower standardized Covid death rate than California did. … California had higher excess mortality than Florida.” – DeSantis, initially rated “false” by the New York Times.
The New York Times omitted DeSantis’ words following and preceding his claim about Florida having a lower COVID death rate than California, which were “that’s a Lancet study.” (Full quote from DeSantis on death rates: “In fact, the Lancet just did a study. Florida had a lower standardized COVID death rate than California did, that’s a Lancet study.”)
Check Your Fact found the study DeSantis was likely referring to, which was published in the Lancet in April 2023. The study, covering Jan. 2020 to July 2022, found that after adjusting for age and other factors, Florida had 313 COVID deaths per 100,000 people. This is in contrast to California, which had 418 COVID deaths per 100,000 people, according to the study.
The unadjusted rates were 416 COVID deaths per 100,000 people in Florida and 291 COVID deaths per 100,000 people in California, according to the study. (RELATED: Fact-Checking The Third Republican Presidential Primary Debate)
“Without standardizing for those biological and demographic factors, Florida is in the bottom quartile of states on COVID-19 deaths and nearly the worst state in the nation on infections. In an oranges-to-oranges comparison that standardizes for factors outside states’ immediate control, the Sunshine State is in the top quartile on COVID-19 deaths and looks a bit better on infections,” three of the authors, who either work or worked at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a September 7 article for Think Global Health.
The authors, though, also stated that “[i]n other words, Florida should not be used as evidence that masks, stay-at-home orders, and vaccines did not matter in this pandemic when the reality is that Floridians continued to adopt them even after DeSantis turned away from them.”
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that California has 248 COVID deaths per 100,000 people, while Florida has 252 COVID deaths per 100,000 people between Jan. 2020 and Nov. 2023. The national average is 289 COVID deaths per 100,000 people.
The NYT noted that Florida had a higher COVID death rate than California in 2021. Adjusting for age, Florida had 111.7 COVID deaths per 100,000 people, while California had 99.1 deaths per 100,000 people, according to the CDC. Florida, though, had a lower death rate than California in 2020, with 56.4 COVID deaths per 100,000 people, while California had 68.7 COVID deaths per 100,000 people, per CDC data.
The NYT also reported that an analysis found that “Florida saw 183 excess deaths per 100,000 people while California saw 142 excess deaths per 100,000 people” between 2020 and 2021. This analysis was conducted by Boston University demographer Andrew Stokes and University of California, San Francisco epidemiologist Yea-Hung Chen.
After publication of this fact-check, the NYT updated its article to include reference to the Lancet study and to change the rating from “false” to “misleading.”
“Another analysis, published this year in the medical journal Lancet, calculated that, unadjusted, Florida’s Covid-19 death rate was 43 percent higher than California’s. Adjusted for age, Florida’s death rate was 12 percent higher,” the NYT reported.
“The figures to which Florida’s governor referred factored in the relative overall health of Florida and California, controlling for obesity, diabetes and other conditions that increased the risk of death from Covid. Under that scenario, which considered the overall poorer health of Florida’s population, the Covid death rate in Florida was lower than in California,” the NYT continued.
The NYT also issued a correction Dec. 6, 2023 noting the change in rating and noting other errors on its Instagram post sharing the fact-checks.
“An earlier version of this article mislabeled a claim about Covid death rates and excess mortality rates. The claim was misleading, not false. The error was repeated in an Instagram post, which also mislabeled Gov. Gavin Newsom’s claim about Gov. DeSantis’s abortion policy. Mr. Newsom’s claim was labeled as requiring context, not misleading,” the correction reads.
[Newsom] is the first governor to ever lose population. They actually at one point ran out of U-Hauls in the state of California because so many people were leaving.” -DeSantis, rated misleading by the New York Times.
These two claims, despite being rated misleading, are largely true. California lost population for the first time in 2020, according to the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). California also lost a congressional seat for the first time in its history after the 2020 census was conducted, Cal Matters reported in May 2021.
The NYT reported in its fact-check that “California’s population has been leveling off for some time and even dipped a little during the pandemic. A key driver? Housing costs.” It did not fact-check DeSantis’ claim about U-Hauls, instead reporting on cross-migration between Florida and California, which DeSantis did not address in this particular claim.
A January 2022 U-Haul press release stated that “California remained the top state for out-migration, but its net loss of U-Haul trucks wasn’t as severe as in 2020. That can be partially attributed to the fact that U-Haul simply ran out of inventory to meet customer demand for outbound equipment.” (Emphasis added by Check Your Fact)
“We sustained a shortage of available one-way trucks and trailers for outbound moves at times during 2020 and 2021 in California and other West Coast locations due to a substantially greater outflow vs. inflow of equipment,” a U-Haul spokesperson told the Sacramento Bee in August 2022.
The claim that California had run out of U-Hauls was rated “largely true” by the Sacramento Bee and “true” by Snopes in January 2022. A June 2023 poll found that 40% of California residents were considering moving out of the state, according to the Los Angeles Times. Newsom has been governor of California since Jan. 2019. (RELATED: Have Terrorists Crossed The Southern Border?)
Bryan Griffin, the press secretary for Ron DeSantis’ campaign, provided Check Your Fact with a fact-sheet titled “People are Flocking to Florida and Fleeing California.” The fact-sheet stated that California, according to data, “has lost 600,000 people as of July 2022.”
Data from Macrotrends showing the population of California had indeed decreased from 39.501 million in 2020 to 39.029 million in 2022. Additional data from the PPIC also states that 600,000 citizens had left the state, most of them during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
After publication, Griffin told Check Your Fact that “[t]he facts are the facts.”
“The facts are the facts, no matter how Gavin Newsom, the liberal media, or other leftist elites try to spin it. Last night, Ron DeSantis was the champion of every American who is tired of being lied to by these folks. Ron DeSantis’ record is unmatched and he’s the best candidate to beat the Democratic candidate in 2024,” Griffin said.
Check Your Fact reached out to The New York Times for comment.
Update 12/1/2023: This article has been updated with an additional comment from the DeSantis campaign and to reflect that the New York Times updated its article to change a rating of a DeSantis claim and to include reference to a Lancet study.
Update 01/09/2024: This article has been updated to note that the New York Times issued a correction on December 6, 2023.