Are Mitt Romney’s Wealth and Taxes Taxing His Campaign?

Back in January, Lynn Vavreck, Joshua Tucker, and I asked this question: what would happen if people knew more specific details about Mitt Romney’s income and tax rate?  We conducted a simple experiment the exposed people to information about these topics.  In this post, I will report on a new iteration of this experiment, which seems particularly timely in light of this Obama ad, for example.

In our first study, we found that Americans tended to think that Romney did not pay his “fair share” of taxes.  In a July 28-30 YouGov poll, the same was true, and perhaps even more so.  Compare perceptions of Romney and Obama in January vs. July:

During these six months, the percentage who had no opinion about what Obama and Romney paid has declined.  For both candidates, the percentage saying that they paid less than their fair share has increased (by about 5 points).  Romney’s disadvantage on this issue remains: a slight majority of Americans now believe that he does not pay his fair share.  And this is not something that only Democrats believe.  Almost half (48%) of “pure” independents believe this as well.

For comparison, here is how respondents felt about the taxes paid by Newt Gingrich, Bill Gates, “most people,” and “people like yourself.”  This shows, for example, that perceptions of Romney are less favorable than those of Gingrich and Gates.

After July respondents had answered these questions, a half-sample was assigned at random to see one of the following:

  • Information about how the average American’s income compares to Romney’s: “The Census Bureau has estimated that the average American household earned about $50,000 in 2010.  In August, Mitt Romney disclosed that in 2010 he and his wife had earned somewhere between $7 million and $40 million.”

  • Information about how federal tax rates for different income levels compare to Romney’s: “In this country, a person making under $20,000 each year pays about 2% of their income in federal taxes.  A person making $60,000 pays about 13% of their income in federal taxes.  A person making $250,000 pays about 20% of their income in federal taxes.  Last week, Mitt Romney suggested that he paid about 15% of his income in federal taxes.”

  • Information about average income and tax rates, with no mention of Romney: ““The Census Bureau has estimated that the average American household earned about $50,000 in 2010.  In this country, a person making under $20,000 each year pays about 2% of their income in federal taxes.  A person making $60,000 pays about 13% of their income in federal taxes.  A person making $250,000 pays about 20% of their income in federal taxes.”

This experiment was designed before Romney had released some details about his income and tax rate, but the information in the experiment corresponds closely to what he released, as we noted in the original post.  For the sake of strict continuity, I opted to keep the experiment the same rather than change it to reflect what Romney released.

Below I compare the key findings from the January experiment—quoting from the earlier post—with new analysis from the July experiment:

…respondents who saw information about either Romney’s wealth or tax rate were less likely to believe he “cares about people like me”—provided they already believed he wasn’t paying his fair share of taxes.

In other words, a group that didn’t like Romney very much to begin with liked him a little less after seeing this information.  In the July experiment, however, even this modest finding did not emerge.  Neither piece of information affected perceptions of Romney on this dimension.

…being told Romney’s income increased the percentage who said that “cares about the wealthy” describes Romney “very well”…

The same is true in July.  In general, Americans now perceive Romney as more concerned about the wealthy than they did in July.  In January, 50% said that “cares about the wealthy” described him very well. Now, 60% say that.  In both experiments, specific information about his income increased that percentage.  Compared to someone who saw no information about Romney, someone who learned that he had made millions of dollars in 2010 was 12 points more likely to say “very well” in the January survey and 10 points more likely to do so in the July survey.

We previously found that believing Romney cares about the wealthy is correlated with believing he doesn’t care about “people like me.”  In this experiment, this correlation is significantly larger when told either about Romney’s income or tax rate than when told neither piece of information.

In the July experiment, we found that information about Romney’s income (although not his tax rate) had this same effect.

What is the upshot here?  First, on dimensions related to wealth and empathy, Romney is perceived less favorably than Obama.  That’s been the upshot of several of my posts with Lynn (e.g., here) and we will be updating that analysis soon.  Other public polls, such as those of the Washington Post and Gallup, confirm this.

Second, specific information about Romney’s wealth and income may worsen perceptions of him on these dimensions, but it is not a game-changer.  As we noted in our earlier post:

The information about Romney’s income or tax rate did not affect how respondents evaluated Romney on other dimensions, such as his willingness to stick by his positions, his honesty, or his trustworthiness.  It didn’t make respondents more likely to describe him as personally wealthy (most already do so anyway).  And it didn’t change whether they believed he cares about the poor or middle class.  When the information does move opinions, the shifts aren’t large.  Many respondents may already have heard about Romney’s income or tax rate or simply don’t consider those facts germane.  The Obama team may find that a campaign that implicitly or explicitly characterizes Romney as a plutocrat isn’t a slam dunk.

That’s still true now, and it’s worth keeping in mind when ads like the one linked above debut.  At the same time, our experiments are just words on the screen during a survey interview, and may not have the impact of a political ad, with its richer palette of image and sound.

Third, even if Romney faces disadvantages on dimensions related to wealth and empathy, it’s not certain whether those dimensions will be the most important ones in November.  Empathy is not the one true key to victory.  More important may be perceptions of which candidate will best improve the economy—something on which Romney has the advantage.

[Cross-posted at Model Politics and Princeton University Press.]

7 Responses to Are Mitt Romney’s Wealth and Taxes Taxing His Campaign?

  1. Adam Berinsky August 7, 2012 at 2:29 pm #

    Very interesting stuff. Do you have the breakdowns by PID? The drop in don’t know responses on Obama is interesting — I wonder if its part of a general increase in attention to the campaign. Perhaps the PID breakdowns could shed some light on that.

    • John Sides August 7, 2012 at 8:28 pm #

      Adam: I do have the breakdowns by party identification. They show movement among partisan groups out of “don’t know” and into actual opinions. There is some predictable partisan bias to that movement. For Romney, Republican “don’t knows” mainly move to “more than fair share,” but for Democrats that movement is toward “less than fair share.” For Obama, the pattern is less partisan. In fact, it appears that Democrats who said “don’t know” moved more toward “less than fair share” than any other category.

      One caveat is that these items were preceded by somewhat different questions on the two polls, so over-time comparisons should be made cautiously. I probably should have highlighted that caveat more in the post. Nevertheless, I think the decline in “don’t know” is not simply an artifact of survey design but likely reflects some campaign-induced opinion formation.

  2. Nadia Hassan August 7, 2012 at 5:32 pm #

    Professor Sides, I think this is an apt and measured conclusion. Just wanted to note something: Romney’s perceived advantage on the economy doesn’t seem set in stone.
    Pew Research found variation on which candidate was seen as better able to handle the economy. Democracy Corps also found the President gaining on this question. Washington Post has also seemed to find fluctuations. ABC/WP Polling found the candidates at parity on the economy in May this year. CBS News did find Romney with a substantial advantage on the economy.

    Also, some polling showed Kerry with an advantage over Bush on handling the economy in the middle of the campaign in 2004.

    The broader point on interpreting Romney’s empathy disadvantage is spot on, I think.

    • John Sides August 7, 2012 at 8:29 pm #

      Nadia: I’d say that attitudes toward handling the economy could easily change, depending on shifts in the economy and overall presidential approval more than anything else. TBD!

      • Nadia Hassan August 7, 2012 at 9:47 pm #

        Thanks! Though Erikson and Wlezien found in their new book that conventions tend to play an important role in the process of steering voters towards fundamentals.

        Oh, and if I may ask something, I am wondering how much Democrats should fret about Romney pulling off an insurgent strategy focused on domestic policy with subtle appeals to race a la 1968 in light of the welfare ad. They should also be nervous about coming off as heavy handed to white voters.

        I really doubt it’s in the President’s interest to be out there defending himself on welfare, or that it would be a strong point for him through the rest of the campaign. That being said, (a) Nixon was subtle about it (b) Humphrey did not campaign on issues that favored him and so forth.

        Broadly, there do seem to be questions about this particular tack as an ‘insurgent’ strategy. Vavreck says it has to be a position that’s hard for the candidate to disown, and Romney himself pursued this on welfare and several Republican governors did as well. Moreover, earlier you told me that the degree to which domestic policy or role of government was an approach depended on public opinion.
        Recent surveys as well as research by Martin Gilens suggest voters support many redistributionist programs aimed at basic living standard and opportunity, and while racial differences existed, many white college graduated and younger women responded very negatively to cuts in these programs. Your own findings about programs people want to cut earlier this year suggests even right-leaning groups are mixed about making sizable cuts to the safety net. One thing about this perception of Romney is that it might be tough to justify asking a lot of the poor and middle class on fiscal policy when he’s in that situation.

  3. Sam Popkin August 7, 2012 at 5:49 pm #

    This is important research. Congratulations.

    A few clarifications please. In January you called ‘cares’ a perennial predictor and now you seem to downgrade that factor. Am I reading too much into the wording?

    Also are you equating ‘doesn’t pay fair share’ with didn’t like very much to begin with? Or is it that people who believe that also say that they don’t like him in the survey?

    Overall I read your research as suggesting: the damage — such as it is — is already done and actual returns won’t change much; he lost ground on these issues over last six months; this is going to make it hard for him or his campaign to defend the Bush tax cuts.

    • John Sides August 7, 2012 at 8:42 pm #

      Sam: Thanks for these questions.

      – On reflection, “perennial predictor” strikes me as a bit strong. While I can show that there is a strong association between this perception and vote intention, whether it is causally prior is a much trickier issue (which is why “predictor” is infelicitous).

      – I wasn’t meaning to equate “less than fair share” with disliking. But the vast majority of people who say “less than fair share” (79%) have a very or somewhat unfavorable view of Romney in the July survey.

      I’d state the conclusion like this: this perception of Romney has been around for months, and the recent Obama attacks haven’t necessarily changed anything. Whether they’ve made it hard for Romney to overcome these perceptions — either by improving on these dimensions, or by changing the subject — remains to be seen.