No, the 47%-ish of voters who pay no Federal income tax are not the same as the 47%-ish people who are sure to vote for Obama. And I don’t think it’s correct to characterize swing voters as particularly “thoughtful.”

by Andrew Gelman on September 18, 2012 · 7 comments

in Campaigns and elections

While John and his commenters argue about the political consequences of that Romney fundraising video, I wanted to briefly remark on the substance of his remarks.

Romney said:

[Obama] starts off with a huge number. These are the people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect.

This last bit makes sense to me, also it seems to be the general consensus that Obama will received at least 47% of the vote in this election. Where Romney goes wrong is in his deterministic connection of the low-income, non-income-tax-paying 47%, with the 47% of the voters who will definitely go for Obama. Yes, Obama will get the majority of the low-income vote, but some middle and upper-income voters will go for him too.

I think Romney was making the mistake of seeing two similar numbers floating around (the 47% or non-income-tax-payers and the 47% floor on the Obama vote) and equating them:

In one clip, Mr. Romney describes how his campaign would not try to appeal to “47 percent of the people” who will vote for Mr. Obama “no matter what.” They are, he says, “dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them.”

I agree that there’s a correlation between voting for Obama and being on government benefits, but the correlation is far from 100%.

Also, lots of middle and upper-income people rely heavily on government programs and also pay taxes (consider, for example, the civilian and military employees of the federal government, or local public employees such as teachers and police officers, or even researchers such as myself who receive government funds); I’m not sure where they fit into Romney’s story.

Here’s another bit:

In the video clips, Mr. Romney says his campaign is concentrating on the “5 to 10 percent in the center” whom he described as “thoughtful” voters.

But my impression from political science research is that swing voters are less thoughtful about political issues. Maybe that’s ok, maybe it’s a virtue not to follow politics or to be clear on which of the two parties is liberal and which are conservative, but I wouldn’t call such people “thoughtful voters.”

My point in all of this is not to slam Romney for his mistakes—a politician at a fundraiser is expected to tell his audience what they want to hear, not to bore them with statistics (that’s my job!) but rather to explore exactly what he’s saying and put it in the context of what we know about voters.

My purpose is not to fact-check a months-old speech but rather to use this news item to remind everyone of the flaws of simple deterministic attitudes about voting. I’m sure the Romney campaign has a much more sophisticated understanding of who might vote for him, but I hate to see those basic mistakes being made, even to a roomful of rich dudes who will, I assume, do just fine no matter what misconceptions they happen to have about American voters. (And comments such as this reveal the persistence of such misconceptions.)

I continue to be disturbed by claims that all or even most voters or one party or another are fools, dupes, moochers, bitter, etc etc, the idea that Democrats are a mix of deadbeats and trustfunders, or that Republicans are a mix of fat cats and religious fanatics.


OneEyedMan September 18, 2012 at 7:06 am

Krugman has the numbers to do the rough calc in 2004. (

If you figure people making less than 30k a year rarely pay federal taxes (For a family of 4 $25k is a typical cut-off for those with typical deductions) and those that do pay very little (10% on first $8k), and that few very rich people pay no income taxes (I’m guessing here though I know about tax-exempt income like muni-bonds)), I figure about 28% of voters for Kerry paid very little or no federal income taxes while 19% of Bush voters did likewise.

Andrew Gelman September 18, 2012 at 7:10 am

Yes, those numbers sound much more reasonable.

matt w September 18, 2012 at 9:52 am

You mean “people making less than 30k a year rarely pay federal *income* taxes,” don’t you? Important distinction that occasionally gets covered up.

Anyway, I think there might need to be more work done to see if there’s even a correlation between paying no federal income tax and voting for Obama. As Matt Yglesias often observes, the people who pay no federal income tax are often retirees, who I believe skew Republican (and students, who skew Democratic); but if you break out retirees who pay no income tax, I don’t know what that does to the data.

OneEyedMan September 18, 2012 at 1:55 pm

Just a typo, that is what I meant as indicated in the final sentence of my comment.

To really get at your question you would need voting data cross-tabbed with income and age. However, IIRC, maximum married social security benefit is about $42,000 per household per year so they would pay income tax if they made $11,000 or more in non social security income. In the $50k and higher household income, Republicans beat Democrats 56 top 43 in 2004 (according to the spreadsheet) and folks with that household income will typically be paying taxes no matter what age they are. I would think that and the higher Democratic share among lower income households would mechanically induce a positive correlation between an indicator for paying taxes and voting Republican, but the devil is in the details I’m sure.

B.G. Klin September 19, 2012 at 2:41 am

Regarding the thoughtful independent voter, you might want to take a second look at what Mitt Romney said: “What I have to do is convince the 5 to 10 percent in the center, that are independents, that are thoughtful, that look at voting one way or the other depending upon, in some cases, emotion, whether they like the guy or not, what he looks like. ” The second half of the sentence actually contradicts the first half. Mitt Romney wanted to suggest that the 5-10% of persuadable independent voters are thoughtful. But that is not actually at all what he ends up saying. He actually ends up saying that at least some of them (maybe more than just some of them) are basically thoughtless.

Matt Jarvis September 19, 2012 at 4:15 pm

Well, Romney *DID* say his words weren’t “elegant”………

Ben September 26, 2012 at 9:03 am

The speech only makes sense as obvious pandering to his audience. That 47% includes the >10% real unemployment/idleness rate which the R’s should be actively courting since they are trying to blame the incumbent for slow economic growth.

Also, I wager around a quarter of that 47% would wrongly insist that they do indeed pay federal income taxes, since lots of working stiffs who make do with the 1040EZ make no distinction between payroll taxes and the federal income taxe, and so confuse the sum of payments to the IRS as equal to federal income tax.

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