In the comments that he made at a private campaign fundraiser earlier this year, Mitt Romney no doubt was telling GOP donors what he thought they wanted to hear. “There are 47 percent who will vote with the president no matter what,” Romney declared. He went on to describe President Obama’s voters as people who are dependent upon government and see themselves as victims. These voters, Romney went on to suggest, pay no income taxes.
When a secret video recording surfaced at the website of Mother Jones magazine this week, Romney was embarrassed — as he should have been — and made it clear that he might at least have worded his comments differently. Yet the problem isn’t the dismissive tone of Romney’s statements, or even the callous image of a wealthy man who paid just 13.9 percent in income taxes blithely bemoaning the low tax rates of others. It’s the loose, and false, equation that undergirded Romney’s argument: the notion that voters who support Obama “no matter what” equals people who “pay no income tax” equals freeloaders who are “dependent upon government.”
Now, as talk radio and conservative websites seize on Romney’s comments to reinforce their own preconceptions, it’s important to understand the actual numbers behind Romney’s assertions — and how utterly foolish and misguided they are.
In his comments, Romney conflated two groups of Americans: the nearly half of the electorate that, according to pollsters, plans to vote for Obama and the 46.4 percent of households that, according to the Tax Policy Center, paid no income tax in 2011. The latter figure is often tossed about by those who would separate the American electorate into Republican-leaning “job creators” and Democratic-leaning moochers.
Yet it’s not true that 46.4 percent of workers are sponging off a government that others are underwriting, because income taxes are hardly the only taxes Americans pay. Eight-two percent of households, including most of those that pay no income tax, are subject to the Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes. By one calculation, these households almost surely paid a higher percentage of their income last year than the 13.9 percent Romney himself paid in his most recent filing.
Another false assumption is that people paying no income taxes are all Obama voters. More than half of those who pay neither payroll nor income taxes are elderly retirees — a demographic in which Romney is polling quite well. The geographic distribution of Romney’s 47-percenters further undercuts his theory. Massachusetts, the state Romney ostensibly knows best, is reliably Democratic in presidential races but has, according to the Tax Foundation, the second-lowest percentage of households with no income tax liability. Obama’s political strength in 2008 was his appeal to educated voters in states such as Virginia and Colorado — voters who might now be surprised to be lumped in as wards of the welfare state.
Romney’s comments have been compared to the unscripted comments that Obama once made about voters who “cling” to guns and religion. It’s an unfair comparison, because Obama was expressing his desire to reach out to the voters he was describing, while Romney was writing off those he considered unwilling. “My job is not to worry about those people,” he said on the video. “I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
Yet in both instances, the candidate in question gave voice to the preconceived notions his party holds about a vast swath of Americans. While the First and Second Amendments severely restrict how much Congress can legislate on religion and guns, the next president and Congress will have to contend with changes in the nation’s tax system, entitlement systems, and overall fiscal priorities. Which means that the stereotypes Romney voiced at that fund-raiser, if left unchallenged, stand a chance of being written into law.
Gaffes consume far too much of our political dialogue; it’s what’s said afterwards that counts. And while Romney acknowledged his awkward phrases, he has yet to reject the unfair and inaccurate assumptions that went into them.