Koch brothers to spend $900 million on 2016 election?

Bernie Sanders 400x400“(T)he Koch brothers, the second wealthiest family in America, are going to spend $900 million in the coming election cycle.”

—Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on March 31, 2015, at an Austin, Texas town hall meeting

 

Overview

Multiple methods of exaggeration lead to a wildly overblown claim.

The Facts

On March 31, 2015, Sen. Bernie Sanders gave a speech at a town hall meeting in Austin, Texas.

Our opening line above is the same line we used to begin our presentation of facts when we critiqued PolitiFact’s fact check of Sanders’ claims about voter participation (we judged PolitiFact was too harsh on Sanders’ claim). But Sanders said something else at the same event that seemed questionable to us (bold emphasis added):

‘Why are you involved in politics? You’re wasting your time.’ And what you have to explain to them is that the Koch brothers, the second wealthiest family in America, are going to spend $900 million in the coming election cycle.

 

Earlier in his speech, Sanders used the Koch brothers as an example of the effects of his ideas on campaign finance reform. Sanders said the Koch name would have to appear on every ad the brothers fund. After naming the $900 million figure, Sanders said it should show the importance of political involvement.

Is the number right?

Analyzing the Rhetoric

It didn’t take long to find the likely source of Sanders’ claim.  News headlines from January 2015 blared the news that the Koch brothers planned to spend $900 billion on the 2016 election.

The New York Times said “Koch Brothers’ Budget of $889 Million for 2016 Is on Par With Both Parties’ Spending.”

National Public Radio’s headline read “Koch Brothers Rival GOP With Plans To Spend $900 Million In 2016.”

Right-leaning Breitbart.com carried a headline saying essentially the same thing via attribution: “Report: Koch Brothers Will Spend $889 Million on 2016 Elections.”

Al-Jazeera’s early version of the story appears to have rounded up to $1 billion:

Al Jazeera Koch $1 billion

When we visited the Al Jazeera site, the article carried the title “Dark money comes out of the shadows.”

Sanders, then, had quite a bit of support from media headlines. But fact-checking his claim compelled us to look deeper than the headlines, especially when headlines from other media sources hinted at deeper subtlety.

The Huffington Post, for example, said “Koch-Backed Network Aims To Spend Nearly $1 Billion On 2016 Elections.”

Perhaps it’s not simply the Koch brothers pledging millions but an entire political action network pledging those millions?

Indeed, we found The New York Times story undercut its own headline (bold emphasis added):

The political network overseen by the conservative billionaires Charles G. and David H. Koch plans to spend close to $900 million on the 2016 campaign, an unparalleled effort by coordinated outside groups to shape a presidential election that is already on track to be the most expensive in history.

 

The mainstream media tended to use “Koch brothers” interchangeably with language describing the conservative political networks the Koch brothers help support. That fudging of the facts likely led many to believe the Koch brothers plan to spend almost $900 million on the 2016 election.

But it gets worse. The mainstream media, including The New York Times, spread misleading information about the purpose of that $889 million. The Koch-associated networks did not plan to spend that much money simply on the 2016 election, as a correction notice from the Washington Post helps explain. The Post exchanged the original headline on its Koch brothers story for one more like the Huffington Post’s, and published a correction underneath:

Correction: A headline on an earlier version of this story incorrectly suggested that the money would all be spent on the 2016 elections.The $889 million budget includes financing not just for politically active groups, but also for free-market think tanks, foundations and universities. It has been corrected.

 

So a portion of that $889 billion was earmarked for education, albeit education projects with a political angle.

First, the $889 billion comes not just from the Koch brothers but also from like-minded donors. Second, the $889 billion would not go just for political donations associated with the 2016 elections.

The first mistake balloons Koch brothers’ spending by the amount other donors would spend. The second mistake counts spending on education and think-tanks as election spending. While we don’t know how exactly how much these mistakes exaggerate the Koch brothers’ political spending, clearly the mainstream media and Sanders end up playing fast and loose with the truth.

We’re not aware of a solid estimate of the Koch brothers political giving for the 2014 election cycle. We found estimates for the spending of the Koch-supported network in 2014 from $100 million to $300 million.

Charitable interpretation for Sanders?

We believe in consistently looking for charitable ways to interpret political claims. But Sanders’ emphasis on the Koch’s status as the second wealthiest family in the nation only solidifies the impression that he intended to credit $900 million in election spending personally to the Kochs. The greatest charity we can reasonably extend to Sanders comes by assuming he unknowingly repeated bad information spread by the mainstream media.

We can’t offer charitable interpretation to news sources that misreported the $889 million fundraising goal.

Summary

Sen. Sanders repeated a false news media meme in his speech. Whatever the Koch brothers actually end up spending on the 2016 election, the $889 million goal was for a group of donors and covered more than giving for the 2016 election cycle.

“(T)he Koch brothers, the second wealthiest family in America, are going to spend $900 million in the coming election cycle.”

False statement icon

While we trust it is true that the Koch brothers are the second wealthiest family in America, that true factoid serves only to support the plausibility of Sanders’ false $900 million claim. The Koch brothers have not pledged to spend $900 million on the 2016 election cycle.

 

References

Confessore, Nicholas. “Koch Brothers’ Budget of $889 Million for 2016 Is on Par With Both Parties’ Spending.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 26 Jan. 2015. Web. 20 Apr. 2015.

Overby, Peter. “Koch Brothers Rival GOP With Plans To Spend $900 Million In 2016.” NPR. NPR, 27 Jan. 2015. Web. 20 Apr. 2015.

Huston, Warner Todd. “Report: Koch Brothers Will Spend $889 Million on 2016 Elections – Breitbart.” Breitbart.com. Breitbart, 27 Jan. 2015. Web. 20 Apr. 2015.

Khan, Naurenn. “Dark Money Comes out of the Shadows.” America.aljazeera.com. Al Jazeera America, LLC., 27 Jan. 2015. Web. 20 Apr. 2015.

(Reuters.) “Koch-Backed Network Aims To Spend Nearly $1 Billion On 2016 Elections.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 26 Jan. 2015. Web. 20 Apr. 2015.

Gold, Matea. “Koch-backed Network Aims to Spend Nearly $1 Billion Ahead of 2016 Elections, May Engage in GOP Primaries.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 26 Jan. 2015. Web. 20 Apr. 2015.

Holpuch, Amanda. “Koch Brothers Set $889m Budget for 2016 Presidential Election.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 26 Jan. 2015. Web. 20 Apr. 2015.

Kroll, Luisa. “America’s Richest Families: 185 Clans With Billion Dollar Fortunes.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 08 July 2014. Web. 20 Apr. 2015.

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