Romney and Voters Who Don’t Pay Taxes

It seems like leftist pundits have decided that remarks by Romney at a fundraiser that were secretly taped and distributed by Mother Jones constitute the latest “now Romney has lost the election” moment. In the video, Romney tells supporters that Obama starts out with a huge base of 47-49% of voters who pay no income taxes, are dependent on government, and thus cannot be reached by Romney’s low tax message.

Of course, for those whose memories go back further than the most recent “Romney is finished” moment declared by Andrew Sullivan and Co., the obvious comparison to this is when Obama famously announced back in 2008 that the big difficulty for his campaign was that it was difficult to reach people who are see no evidence of progress in their daily lives and so they become bitter and cling to their guns and their religion.

Both comments spring from a degree of party mythology. It’s not the case that all 47% of people who don’t pay income taxes are Democrat supporters. Because our tax code is so progressive and because of the hefty child tax credit and earned income tax credit (both of which are things Republicans generally support) a lot of middle income families do not pay taxes. That certainly doesn’t make them default Obama supporters. Many of them are in fact die-hard Republicans, because they don’t participate in the modern Democratic Party’s vision of government dependence and social engineering as the solution to their problems.

That said, I think this particular media tizzy is particularly silly, and the pundits declaring Romney to be badly hurt by this are mostly reflecting the beliefs of a bubble in which the GOP is already hated.

Obama’s remarks were, if anything, far more offensive to potential swing voters. He categorized whole sections of the country, demographically, as being given over to bitterness because they hadn’t seen progress and explained that this bitterness came out in their becoming attached to guns, religion, hating minorities and immigrants, etc. There are a lot of small town people who like to hunt and go to church and don’t think of themselves as racist who nonetheless were potential Obama swing voters in 2008.

By contrast, Romney’s analysis may be off (and I don’t think that does him any credit) but it’s really hard for me, at least, to picture someone saying, “Gee, I was really thinking Romney might have some answers on the economy, but now I heard this clip where he says that people who don’t pay taxes and want to be dependent on the government are in the bag for Obama, and I’m proud of the fact that I don’t pay taxes and depend on the government, so forget about him! I’m supporting Obama.”

A lot of people who don’t, on net, pay taxes don’t really think of themselves as not paying taxes. The tax code is complex enough to make it tricky to tell in some ways. (And they pay other taxes even if they don’t pay federal income tax.) Nor do many people who are potential GOP voters think of themselves as dependent on government. If anything, the argument that Obama already has a huge advantage because he’s bribing voters with lots of government handouts seems to fit with Romney’s overall campaign message. Whether that’s a winning message I don’t know (I hope it is) but it’s hard for me to see how this is actually all that damaging.


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  1. It’s damaging because it’s being spun as Romney “despises” the 48%.

    As for the other question, remember to think in terms of the economic life cycle. Many of the people who aren’t paying taxes are young or old. The youth are more likely to vote Democratic, but have a poor turnout rate. The old are more likely to vote for the party they’ve always voted for, and have a high turnout rate. It’s a big (but common) mistake to think of the poor or the non-taxpayers as a permanent underclass, urban with low education.

  2. It was dumb. Some people on social security did back breaking work their whole life like beef luggers and meat cutters back in the day but were paid at such a level as to need social security when they aged and they now in retirement hear Romney picturing them badly. I think the comments will do real damage in the debates wherein moderators will bring it up and by then, factcheck dot org will estimate the other taxes everyone is paying. Cigarette taxes (Federal $1.01 a pack), half of which are paid for by low income people, are paying some real bills in the Schipp programs. Everyone pays sales tax and even renters pay property taxes indirectly in the exact price of their rent. Ultimately even the welfare check does not stop in the welfare person’s wallet but moves on to the Bodega and the landlord who pay taxes.

  3. I think Romney’s comment will resonate positively with most Americans, especially those who are picking up the tab for the rapid expansion of the Welfare State under Obama. Romney should take advantage of this to launch an ad offensive attacking Obama’s policies as directly leading to more and more dependence on government by an ever increasing share of the population. I don’t think Romney will be hurt among Americans who do not pay income tax and who do not receive government benefits and that is a fair amount of the 47% who do not pay income tax.

  4. Bill,

    What I’m wondering, though, is: Will a retired meat cutter who hears this Romney clip here on the news going to think, “He despises me because I’m dependent on the government?” or is he going to think, “By golly, that’s right. I worked hard my whole life, paid my taxes, and I live on the Social Security that I paid into my whole life. I don’t want to support people who aren’t willing to take care of themselves!”

    At least among those likely to vote Republican anyway, I don’t think most people on Social Security and MediCare think of themselves as being “dependent on the government” or not paying taxes (actually, a lot of them do pay taxes, even though their income is very low, because they don’t have dependents and they often don’t have mortgages).

    I may well be wrong. I’m just not sure that many people who could be persuaded to vote for Romney in the first place are likely to think of themselves as being insulted by this remark. (Though I think it was slip on Romney’s part, because it’s clearly not the case that all people who don’t pay taxes support Obama.) It seems like a remark that’s callibrated to pretty much only offend those who are already die hard Democrats.

    That said, if it adds to the “Romney is an out of touch rich guy” meme, it could well end up hurting him. Sadly, elections in the US don’t tend to be decided by the people with any real kind of political awareness (they mostly have their preferences already set) but by the sort of people who don’t have strong or clear political beliefs and base their decisions of vague ideas of “what sort of person” each candidate is.

  5. I think Romney can salvage this one by expanding on his point. It’s not just the poor who don’t pay income tax who are government dependent. It’s the fat cats in academia who live off of public university subsidies, the public sector unions who depend on laws from state governments mandating union dues be collected automatically and who get their pay from the government, the fourth rail (the media) who live on insider access to beltway folks, the big investment banks that Obama bailed out with Federal funds, and all the rest who live on government pay and therefore have stake in government remaining unsustainably large.

  6. and the pundits declaring Romney to be badly hurt by this are mostly reflecting the beliefs of a bubble in which the GOP is already hated.

    That bubble of GOP-haters includes large sections of Republicans, including the likes or Karl Rove, who live in a perpetual state of pessimism and despair.

    Pinky might have a point that this could be spun by a complict media in a way that Obama’s comments were not. That said, the post-9/11 “gaffe” did no apparent harm to Romney, and I think this will largely be a kerfuffle only in media circles, but will have no lasting impact one way or the other on the campaign.

    Finally, as one who has been – to put it mildly – no fan of Mitt Romney, I have to say that this Mitt Romney is someone I could have gotten behind (or at least disliked less) in the primary season. I will say this in his favor: he hasn’t exactly run to the middle as I thought he would once he secured the nomination.

  7. The greatest insult to another, in terms of the Left, is to be insensitive (or even perceived as insensitive) to another’s feelings, unless those feelings are couched in either orthodox Christianity or non-intellectual turn of life (hunting, Nascar, etc.). Therefore, Romney is being insensitive to the poor, the lower classes, etc., and must pay for his insensitivity.

  8. This would be a great time for the Romney campaign to remind them of the Obama campaign’s Life of Julia, that celebration of reliance on government:


    The Obama campaign has not been subtle: Vote for us and we will give you freebies! (Sandra Fluke, that is your cue!) When it comes to giving away things Romney can’t compete with Obama, but when it comes to pointing out that this Welfare State on steroids is sending the country off a fiscal cliff, Romney can make that case very effectively if he has the intestinal fortitude to do so.

  9. Darwin,
    In an extraordinary situation of 8+% unemployment, 45 million people received food stamps in 2011 according to Judicial Watch. But that’s 12% of the country not 47% which tells me and others that Romney is dissing anyone getting a check and not paying income tax. And that is the meatpacker on social security. But it’s also every young widow with children because each of them gets a social security check for the children. A Merrill Lynch manager with a wife and three children was stabbed to death on the train platform in Jersey City four years ago by an insane person off his meds. That widow just to roughly keep that standard of living would have to accept social security. I presume she lost her home given the loss of income involved. TV showed a woman living in a shelter with her three children and working two low paid jobs. She receives
    medicaid for medical coverage because privately that would be $12,000 for the four of them. She is in Romney’s 47% as perhaps is the Merrill Lynch widow….receiving government help…earning too little to pay tax since three children and no real career in perhaps both situations.

  10. The comments undercut Romney’s “the President is dividing us” theme. Now, I don’t know if that theme was resonating, but Romney would have been better off going into the debates with that theme intact. It would have made a great rebuttal. But now, Obama can dismiss any such criticism with a single reference.

  11. The upside is that lots of members of the 47% who don’t pay income tax probably don’t realize it and may even be upset at the thought of so many people not paying taxes.

    On the other hand, writing off 47% of the American public, for whatever reason, is generally not a good idea for a presidential candidate.

  12. I definitely think the worst part of it is the optics of apparently writing off 47% of the electorate. Sure, it’s highly unlikely that Romney could squeak out of win of more than a couple percentage points, but it never looks good for a presidential candidate to say that he just can’t reach nearly half the country (even if it’s true.)

    Bill: Again, I think it’s mostly only people on the left who are going to take the comment in those terms. I’ve known plenty of tea party sympathizers who due to their individual circumstances don’t pay federal income taxes, but aside from the fact that many people who don’t pay taxes don’t realize that they don’t pay taxes (after all, even people on Social Security pay taxes on it — though if they have low enough total income and enough deductions they may get it all back and more), people aren’t necessarily consistent in their political impressions. It’s not at all unlikely that someone who doesn’t pay income taxes would at the same time be angry at the idea of “freeloaders” not paying taxes and being dependents.

  13. This “tempest in a teapot” is meant to distract the unoffocial Obama re-election camaign flaks/MSM and the OWS crowd from Obama’s lethal failures in foreign policy and GWOT and the fact we are being run into the poor house.

    Obama and his people gave us the “Julia” vids.

    This re-states the same theme.

    Vote for Obama. He will take care of all your needs.

    Hope and change: will 197,000 new, August food stamp recipients largely vote Obama?

    Will 96,000 that got jobs in August largely vote Romney?

  14. Hi GOPers.

    I’m surprised none of you have made a post about the LUNACY of Paul Ryan’s economic plan.

    Cutting govt spending to 20% of gdp its currently just under 40% removing that much money is large scale austerity and would make things absurdly tight in the states plus would have alot of negative consequence also a tax system of just two rates 25% and 10% isn’t something that could ever work.

    Margaret Thatcher’s austerity programs, British government spending never went below 40% of GDP. 20% of GDP would lead to mass unemployment and even starvation.

  15. Darwin – You reminded me of something. Romney’s statement uses tea party phrasing. It may alienate some people, but it’s going to energize the tea partiers, who are potential contributors and volunteers. They haven’t been particularly vocal so far this election.

  16. Pinky,
    The whole tape is being released later today as per his request by Mother Jones. Who knows what lurks therein. Boredom is not an option in U.S. elections now that cameras with speakers rule.

  17. Coolio,

    Your numbers are wrong. According to White House numbers (table 1.2) federal spending was 24% of GDP in 2011 and federal tax receipts were 15% of GDP. The Ryan plan is to get both of those numbers to around 20%. That’s far from crazy, it’s the post WW2 norm for the US.

  18. Hmmmm.
    if I’m reading this right was fed spending well below 20% of GDP in the past?
    My prof is saying that going under 20% of GDP is absurd.

  19. Coolio,

    If you go back to before the Korean War, and certainly before WW2, federal spending was way under 20% of GDP. Back then, the federal government did a lot less (Dept. of Agriculture didn’t have all the subsidies it does not, welfare didn’t really exist, nor did Social Security or Medicare or Medicaid, there weren’t appreciable Federal education subsidies, even the military was a lot smaller.) Since the late 60s the federal budget has pretty consistently been 20% of GDP. The main reason it’s higher now is that with an extended recession the GDP hasn’t grown as much as usual and the government has spent more than usual both trying to help people directly (unemployment, foodstamps, etc.) and also via stimulus spending (spending programs, GM bailout, Wall Street bailout, etc.)

    It may be that your professor was thinking of the total government spending number (federal + state + local) for which I think I’ve seen some numbers that approach 40% of GDP, though I don’t know how good those numbers are. However, obviously, the Ryan budget wouldn’t cut state and local spending.

    Whatever one may think about the details of the Ryan budget, the overall size of it in relation to the economy is pretty much the same as what existed under Clinton.

  20. We didn’t hit double digits until World War I (Civil War excepted). Generally federal spending as a percent of GDP was in the 5% range, and then has continually ramped up since the rise of the Progressives. But Darwin’s correct – the 40% number must encompass all government spending, not just federal.

  21. “Watch this “campaign-changing gaffe” become a nonstory as soon as the press decides it’s hurting Obama instead of helping him.” Instapundit

  22. Generally federal spending as a percent of GDP was in the 5% range, and then has continually ramped up since the rise of the Progressives.

    I believe federal spending stood at ~1.4% prior to the 1st World War. It was ~1.7% as of the fiscal year concluding in June of 1929 (while state and local spending stood at ~9%). It increased to around 3% by 1933 as nominal federal spending was maintained while nominal domestic product declined severely. During the period running from 1933 to 1940, a plateau of 6.5% was reached. Over the course of the period running from 1947 to 1974, proportionate federal spending and state and local spending was on an upward trajectory (initially from an increase in the baselines devoted to the military). The sum of these reached a plateau around about 1974 and then fluctuated around a set point of ~ 33% of domestic product until 2008/09.

  23. That bubble of GOP-haters includes large sections of Republicans, including the likes or Karl Rove, who live in a perpetual state of pessimism and despair.

    If the topic is the dynamics of an electoral campaign, Rove is about as informed an opinion as you are likely to find. One of the annoying features of those insipid things called Presidential campaigns is the amount of kibbitzing from people who know little or nothing of either promotional campaigns or the mechanics of electoral politics.

  24. What I’m wondering, though, is: Will a retired meat cutter who hears this Romney clip here on the news going to think, “He despises me because I’m dependent on the government?” or is he going to think, “By golly, that’s right. I worked hard my whole life, paid my taxes, and I live on the Social Security that I paid into my whole life. I don’t want to support people who aren’t willing to take care of themselves!”


    A lot of doom-and-gloom-there-is-no-hope stuff requires that one believe most people are idiots.
    The retired folks that I know who would give Romney anything like a chance are bright enough, if pressed, to say something like “Sure, I don’t pay federal income taxes and would probably be in the forty whatever percent, but it’s just silly to expect him to say ‘the 40-something-percent minus people who were charged their whole lives for social security and may or may not be paying income tax part of the population that is getting free money from the government isn’t going to vote against getting their free money,’ what kind of loon are you? Now, about my medicare cuts and how none of the doctors I use can take it anymore because filing the paperwork costs more than the government will give them—”

    The retired folks that I know who wouldn’t do that are the same ones that blocked me when I pointed out that a 19 year old married woman having a kid isn’t proof that religious states have too many high school kids getting pregnant.

  25. Foxfier,
    But in 2005, those totally dependent on welfare in the U.S. were 3.8% of the population. Another 11+% both work and receive food stamps etc. based on low wages for family size.
    A majority then of Romney’s 47% of the nation are already taking responsibility and care for their lives and he said he could not convince 47% to do so. At best Romney can’t convince 3.8% of the nation not 47%.
    Federal checks go to retired military, retired federal workers and pols, disabled on ss, elderly on ss, widows with children on ss, and all federal workers and active military if you go beyond
    Bottom line, Romney actually was trying to lower the polling hopes of the rich donors he was speaking to so he was explaining away the Obama voter base as 47% of the nation that doesn’t care for themselves when at best that figure is 3.8% and only if you are totally exacting on that group.

  26. Because American’s median household income is down $2,000, or 4%, lower now than at the June 2009 end of the Great Recession.

    Because QEternity might raise the price pf an ounce of gold to $2,400 (Thank you, Ben!!!) and oil $190 a barrel.

    Because mortgage lending hits a 16 year low.

    Because food stamps unexpectedly hit an all-time high.

  27. Rove is about as informed an opinion as you are likely to find.

    When it comes to analyzing political data and understanding the dynamics of each district – heck, each county – then yes, few are as savvy as Karl Rove. When it comes to taking the data and offering good political advice, Rove is no better than a snake oil salesman.

  28. Bill-
    your response doesn’t have anything to do with what I wrote, and even goes on to conflate having any other source of income with not taking more than you give.

  29. The networks are rabid about Mitt Romney’s simple objective observation about part of the entire population. People from all sectors hear the daily bias, and aren’t seriously listening to constant one-sided childlike whining.
    It seems as though DNC media is counting on idiots and trying to create some more.

    I wonder whether the DNC is giving prizes to the reporters and newcasters who best spin facts.

    Demerits when they don’t forget the President’s insulting those for clinging to religion and morals, his fruitless spending excesses and corporate bailouts, his promises to be flexible for Russia next term, his pandering to terrorists in countries where his Americans are slaughtered, and his racial bigotry division troublemaking, and his contrasting attitude to Muslims versus Christians. Or his wife’s video about the ‘damn’ flag last year. Or question or address his backing of law to let babies born alive after a failed abortion attempt to die on the table. Or the fact that radicals in the middle East and worldwide want to kill Americans due to things in his own immoral Democrat platform. Or his altering traditional references to and denial of his Creator to whose church he went with his family. Or a slew of other outrageous gaffes, facts and figures that no one else could ever live down. Symptoms of severe amnesia over the fact that as Governor, Mitt Romney helped better the lives of people on gov. aid by using responsible management. No one wants demerits for doing honest work.

    Anyway some neighborhood kids were bemused by his Presidency of the 57 states of America!

  30. “many people who don’t pay taxes don’t realize that they don’t pay taxes”

    In the world of sound bites, I don’t know that too many people who would otherwise have been inclined to vote for Romney are going to connect themselves with the 47% who allegedly “don’t pay taxes” (or more accurately, do not OWE federal taxes under current law) and consider that such an egregious insult that they will run out and vote for Obama. However, this kerfluffle points out the weakness in this meme that the Tea Party has been flogging for some time and which I have always found particularly irritating.

    If you are told that a particular person or group of people “doesn’t pay taxes,” what do you immediately think? If you’re like me, the first thought that comes to mind is that they must be doing something wrong — that they are evading tax liability through deliberate action, or that they are failing to file tax forms or fill out W-4 forms to have taxes withheld from their wages. That’s why I would be extremely hesistant to equate not having a tax liability with “not paying” taxes.

    However, a good chunk of the 47% consists of people who do have taxes withheld from their paychecks every week (or 2 weeks, or month) and who file tax forms every year in order to claim a refund. How can they be accused of “not paying taxes” if they go through the hassle of filing income tax every year? What are they supposed to do — let Uncle Sam keep their refund, which they effectively lent him interest-free for the previous year?

  31. I would say Rove has the point of view of Beltway Repubs. This is how he could support immigration “reform”, big entitlements and lavish spending. He also has their myopia so he could convince Bush in 2006 that they had no need to worry about the possibility of Dems taking over Congress. Rasmussen has consistently shown almost inverse opinions between the Northeast elites and the rest of the country on many topics.

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