Hagle: Mitt Romney and the 47 percent


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The recent release of a secretly recorded video of Mitt Romney speaking to a group of donors last May has caused an intense reaction in the press. In the video, Romney noted the oft-quoted statistic that 47 percent of American households do not pay federal income taxes. He then spoke about what Republicans refer to as the “culture of dependency.” His basic point was that those dependent on government largess are not likely to vote for him.

Democrats, the Barack Obama campaign, and the press were quick to criticize Romney’s statements. The statements fit a general theme of the Obama campaign that Romney is an elitist and out of touch with most Americans. Obama himself noted that a president needs to be the president of all the people.

Republicans have generally agreed with the basic point Romney was trying to make. Namely, that government growth is out of control, unsustainable, and fosters a culture of dependence that stifles self-reliance. Many conservatives cheered the bluntness of Romney’s comments and hoped it would bring this issue to the forefront of the campaign. Others, including Romney himself, have said that the points were made inelegantly.

Part of the inelegance of Romney’s comments comes from his mixing of two different aspects of the issue. It’s true that 47 percent of American households don’t pay federal income taxes. Many do, however, pay other sorts of taxes, such as sales taxes and state income taxes. It’s also true that about half of American households receive benefits of one sort or another from the government.

Nevertheless, the type of benefits varies greatly does not always indicate someone who has fallen prey to the culture of dependency.

Romney is no doubt correct that a substantial portion of those relying on government assistance will not vote for him. In that forum, however, he failed to make distinctions between those who are struggling to become self-reliant and those who may not be. In addition, both before and after the release of the video Romney has said that he wants to provide help to those who need it, but has a different vision from Obama as to how to provide that help. 

People often complain that candidates are too scripted, but this is a good example of how making off-the-cuff comments can get a candidate into trouble. Following the release of the video, Republicans were quick to remind people of Obama’s “bitter clinger” comments in 2008. Obama survived the backlash from those comments, but he also had about six months before the election for its newsworthiness to fade. Romney has much less time, but he will certainly try to reframe the discussion to the broader issue. Naturally, the Obama campaign will try to keep the narrative on what they see as Romney’s elitism. 

Does any of this really matter for the campaign? It might, but probably not. Those still undecided or who are only leaning and could be persuaded to switch are likely more concerned about the economy in general, jobs in particular, or other substantive issues, such as what’s currently occurring in the Middle East.

Timothy Hagle
Associate professor of political science

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