Columns » Ernest Dumas

Romney and the 47 percent



A wealthy politician who tells his rich donors that he and they should not bother themselves about the poorest half of America because they are slackers and moochers may have a problem on election day.

But Mitt Romney, who said all that in private and then publicly affirmed that he really believed it, presents his party with a bigger problem than the appearance of haughtiness and inhumanity, which even the most conservative candidates, like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, have taken pains not to exhibit. It pins its hopes on a man who, if he truly believes what he says, is supremely ignorant of the electorate that he counts on to put him and his party in power.

As everyone knows by now, a video of Romney talking to $50,000 donors to his campaign at the Boca Raton, Fla., home of private-equity mogul Marc Leder in May shows him wiping his hands of the 47 percent of Americans who did not owe any federal income taxes for 2010. President Obama, he said, has all those voters locked up because they are happy with living off government handouts.

"My job is not to worry about those people," he said. "I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility for their lives." He will try to reach the small percentage of independent voters who pay federal income taxes but have not made up their minds on the president.

When the video was made public, Romney said believed what he said though he had stated his ideas in an "inelegant" way. An Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorial helped him out on the inelegant part by explaining that everyone who does not owe federal income taxes does not have much stake in America.

That 47 percent includes people whose retirement income, Social Security and private, does not raise them to a bracket that subjects them to a tax liability. It includes people who are temporarily or permanently unemployed and receive either unemployment benefits or some form of assistance, usually food stamps or Social Security disability.

Mainly the 47 percent are workers whose low wages — often after two or three jobs — do not leave them owing income taxes because their gross incomes are too low or because child tax credits and other deductions and credits eliminate the small tax liabilities. Those are the same credits, deductions and exemptions that are claimed by everyone else, including Romney and his family.

The men who were chiefly responsible for removing so many millions from the tax rolls were Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Reagan created the earned-income tax credit to encourage people who could not earn much money to at least work. Bush, seeking a way to make his big tax cuts for high earners spread across all the electorate, increased the child tax credit, which took millions of low-wage families off the rolls.

But here is the point of all this. Romney said all those people are Obama voters, and his remarks implied that those are about all the votes that the president will get.

The truth is that without those voters Romney has no chance to be elected president.

You can use the IRS tax tables each year to calculate how many people in each state wind up with no tax liability. The states with the highest percentage of adults who owe no federal income tax year are almost all states where Romney will win by landslides. Of the 15 states with the highest percentage of nonpayers, 12 are states where the election is conceded to Romney by huge margins. Those states —Southern states along with Utah, Idaho and Kentucky — will give him 132 electoral votes, half of what is needed to be elected. They constitute most of the electoral votes Romney can now count. Arkansas, where Romney will get more than 60 percent of the votes, ranks third in the percentage of nonpayers.

The other three states with the highest share of people who do not pay are Florida, New Mexico and North Carolina, which neither Romney nor Obama has locked up.

The South belongs to Romney because he wins the votes of a vast majority of low-income white workers. They and their families constitute most of the mooching 47 percent. They are his hope for winning Midwestern industrial states as well.

If Romney succeeds, it will be because most of those voters assume that he was not talking about them but about all those black people who are voting for Barack Obama.

What should bother most of the 47 percent is that most of them pay a higher share of their meager incomes on state, federal and local taxes than do Romney and most of his rich donors. Federal payroll and excise taxes constitute the largest share their tax burden, along with state and local sales taxes. The poorest 80 percent of Americans in annual income pay from 17.5 to 28 percent of their incomes in taxes. Romney pays 14 percent, based on his last two years' returns, in federal income taxes. His other taxes won't add much to that.

Since he doesn't draw a paycheck, Romney pays little in the way of payroll taxes although that will change under Obamacare, when, like wage-earners, he will have to start paying Medicare taxes on his investment income. Romney says he will keep some parts of Obamacare, but you can be sure that will not be one of them.

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