09/21/2012 08:07 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What Do Voters Make of Mother Jones' Leaked Romney Fundraiser Video?

This question originally appeared on Quora.
By Ian McCullough, Consultant for Consumer-Facing Startups, Armchair Policy Wonk, and Quora User Since November 2010

Lest there be any concerns about hidden biases as I begin my answer, let me make my agenda plain: I want Barack Obama to win the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election, and I want Mitt Romney to lose. I am not dependent upon the government, nor do I believe that I am a victim, nor that the government has a responsibility to care for me.

I do, however, believe that all of us as a shared society have a responsibility to care, in some very minimal ways, about one another.

I believe that everyone is entitled to affordable health care, quality affordable housing, and that in the greatest country in the history of the world, no Americans ought to go hungry. I think that these are things that our shared society ought to be able to provide. Within that, I think that Government sometimes has a role to play in these particular things - although preferably not as a direct seller, and preferably at the most local level reasonably possible - when markets fail to make these basics available.

There. That is now out of the way. My biases are in plain view.

My first response to the Mother Jones video - a response that is still shared by many people - was that Mitt Romney was again demonstrating shocking contempt for the approximately 47% of Americans who don't pay Federal Income Tax as a result of their low incomes. This was especially startling given that eight of the ten states with the most people with no Federal Income Tax liability are all states that will likely deliver their electoral votes to Romney, and a ninth one is the crucial battleground state of Florida.


Here is a data table for nonpayers by state for 2010: Intriguingly, in 2010, the state of Utah bumped Louisiana to #11 of "No Federal Tax Liability" states and took the #10 slot. Let that sink in a minute: Utah. And Florida.

What could he possibly have been thinking in saying such things about poor people even in private??? And people who are likely to vote for him, no less!!!

Let's go to the video and look at what he said in the most talked about section.

Now let's look at the transcript. The paragraph breaks are mine.


There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. And I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49, 48 -- he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax.

Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn't connect. And he'll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean that's what they sell every four years.

And so my job is not to worry about those people-- I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. 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 it looks like. I mean, when you ask those people ... we do all these polls -- I find it amazing -- we poll all these people, see where you stand on the polls, but 45 percent of the people will go with a Republican, and 48 or 4 ...

Here's what I now believe: in what has become a recurring Romney problem, he communicated in an unclear and hard-to-follow fashion. In this case, though, there's another factor that makes this matter even more confusing than usual.

It looks like Mitt Romney stumbled into a very interesting coincidence.

  • Approximately 47% of people had no Federal Income Tax Liability in 2011.
  • Barack Obama's polling numbers have consistently been right around 47%


If you cut out his statement about "These are people who pay no income tax," the context become far less ambiguous - he's switched lines of thought, and then he switches back. As soon as you include that statement, it becomes more confusing as to what he's talking about.

"Those people" that Romney says it is not his job to worry about are the 47% of likely voters who are committed to voting for Obama.

Romney wasn't actually expressing contempt towards poor people (this time). Romney was expressing contempt towards the 47% of likely voters who are going to vote for Obama regardless of anything Romney says or does.


(1) It matters a lot which 47% he's talking about. (And he is talking about the 47% of committed Obama voters, as any number of Republican representatives will be happy to clarify and explain.) Here's why.

The 5-10% of swing voters - rich, poor, and in between - that Romney is trying to persuade to vote for him ought to know what the Republican Party candidate will think of them if they don't vote for him. If you are undecided and don't vote for Romney, then you can see for yourself what he will think of you.

"Vote for me or you're worthless and take no responsibility for your life."

That's his real pitch to undecided voters.

What a charmer.

(2) From a slightly different perspective, it doesn't actually matter whether the 47% of people he was talking about were the 47% of taxpayers with no Federal Income Tax Liability or if it's the 47% of likely voters who are committed to voting Barack Obama. It's still a ridiculous amount of contempt for someone running to be the President of the United States of America to express about a huge swath of the populace.

Let me make sure I've got this right:

  • Obama supporters who don't pay taxes = worthless moochers whom Romney doesn't care about.
  • Rich people who don't pay taxes = model American citizens who are just following the law??

Isn't he running to be the President of everyone? Would anyone care to compare these hostile remarks against his rosy and saccharine acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention? Which version of Mitt Romney are we talking to now?

(3) Since he's the one who brought up people who don't have Federal Income Tax liability, let's talk some more about this. I think that Romney should read up on the history of the Earned Income Tax Credit. The complaints about people who "don't pay income tax" ignore the fact that Social Security, Medicare, and State taxes are taxed as separate streams. Those taxes eat into household income too and diminish purchasing power significantly.

See also:

President Ronald Reagan called the EITC "the best antipoverty, the best pro-family, the best job creation measure to come out of Congress."* Similarly, Mark Everson, who served as IRS commissioner under President George W. Bush, called the EITC "one of the government's most successful anti-poverty programs."

Romney ought to clarify whether or not he disagrees with Ronald Reagan on this point.

To take this recurring question about tax fairness further, let's take a look at some data from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.


(For more details on the ITEP tax simulation model, see

By the time all taxes are included, the system is actually pretty flat. Everyone insinuating that poor people don't pay taxes needs to stop.

(4) "Mitt Romney says something breathtakingly insensitive and idiotic" is not a new headline.

I find it interesting, though, that rather than clarify errors and misunderstandings and get caught in a discussion of whether Romney "had a gaffe" or "made a mistake," they grasp onto some theme within the botched statement and reassert it repeatedly.

Consider the Romney campaign's response to Romney's atrocious and premature statements about the September 2012 Embassy Attacks in the Middle East. Also look at their response to a recent somewhat confusing quote about "middle income is $200,000 to $250,000 and less." All recent tax discussions have drawn a line at "under $250,000," but Romney fumbles the expression of that idea too. Rather than get into a discussion about median income vs. boundaries on tax rate changes, the campaign makes a clumsy "clarifying-but-not" remark about household income.

This "47%" business is but the very latest in a long, long line of clumsy statements.

(5) Jumping to a different section of the tape: the son of the former Governor of Michigan and former CEO of American Motors who wasn't drafted for Vietnam because he was a missionary in France and was able to afford an MBA and JD from Harvard "inherited nothing?" Even people who get all worked up denying how awesome it is to be a white, heterosexual male - and it really is pretty great, societally speaking - have to look at Mitt Romney and admit that he's had a bit of an edge in life.

It's wonderful that he's been charitable. Bravo. But that doesn't entitle him to casually dismiss people who haven't had the enormous advantages that he's had.

(6) For any Obama supporters who are ready to write Romney off electorally, think about this: a Republican Party driven by Politically-Active Social Conservative Evangelicals and a Tea Party faction that rose to power in opposition to Wall Street bailouts and Government-sponsored health care has selected as its nominee a Mormon Private Equity Tycoon that happens to be the former abortion rights supporting, health insurance individual-mandating Governor of Massachusetts ... who also happens to speak fluent French.

It ain't over 'til it's over.

Do not underestimate how deeply factions of the GOP voting base absolutely despise Barack Obama. Until we see greater than 271 electoral votes tallied, take nothing for granted.

P.S. Just so Mr. Romney is clear, the main reason I'm am supporting his opponent is because the Politically-Active Social Conservatives within the Republican Party scare the hell out of me on issues of women's rights, gay rights, racial equality, science policy, and education policy. Mr. Romney is keeping some very dangerous company, and I'd like to keep those people as far away from positions of power as I can.


Credit to Joshua Engel for the ITEP data, and Jim Seidman for clarification of how the model works.


By Jennifer Miller, Kentucky Attorney and Producer, Former White House Staff Member

What makes me so sad is the dripping contempt and willful ignorance. By all accounts, Mitt Romney is an intelligent human being who acts in ways that he believes are kind and generous. What mental gymnastics are required for him to believe that 47% of our nation's citizens have a victim complex and desire to mooch off the other 53%?

The answer by Ian McCullough and additional data added in the comments section by Joshua Engel demonstrate the fallacy of the 47% calculation. Romney must know:

  1. A majority of that 47% paid payroll taxes and other federal (and state and local) taxes.
  2. Many people who are certain they will vote for Obama also pay a great amount of income taxes.
As to the people who are moochers in Romney's view of US citizenry:

In 2011, of the 18.1 percent of American households who paid no federal tax (meaning, no federal income or payroll tax), more than half were elderly, and most of the other half were non-elderly people making below $20,000 a year. The other sliver, roughly one in 20 non-payers, were people who made more than $20,000 in household income.

But the most egregious members of the 47 percent are the 3,000 people who made more than $2,178,866 in 2011 (putting them in the top 0.1 percent of taxpayers), and yet paid no federal income taxes.

Those people are likely hedge fund managers, real estate investors, or other wealthy financiers whose income comes primarily in the form of capital gains, which is taxed at a much lower rate than ordinary income. Combine the capital gains rate with a magical thing called a "tax-loss carryforward," which allows an investor to use last year's big loss to offset this year's gains for tax purposes, and voila - no federal income tax.[1]

So the hypocrisy is huge. [2]

But what upsets me the most is thinking about who falls into that 18.1 percent that Romney loathes. The people "who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them."

1.7 million of those "victims" are veterans of World War II. How did the heroes of the Greatest Generation spawn Baby Boomers like Romney who demonstrate no gratitude for the people who risked their lives for our country and paid into the system for decades. Hasn't the US since the New Deal had a social contract in which government DOES have a responsibility to care for 10% of the current population?

Romney can insult me, and people like me, all he wants. I get that if he wins, he'll do everything in his power to enact public policy diametrically opposed to my socially liberal preferences -- and ironically slash the taxes I pay. But I take enormous offense to him maligning my grandparents and other people who earned their Medicare and Social Security-enabled retirement.


[2] See also:

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