Romney’s Wrong: Government ‘Gifts’ Won’t Make You Vote Obama

If your state receives more federal dollars, you’re no more likely to vote for Obama.

11.15.12 7:30 PM ET

On Wednesday, in a conference call with disappointed donors, Mitt Romney blamed his election loss on President Obama’s penchant for handing out “gifts” to dependent constituencies: free contraception for girls, free health care for African Americans and Latinos. The claim echoed Romney’s infamous “47-percent” comments: makers vote Republican, takers vote Democratic.

One problem: at the time Romney made those comments, “maker” states—i.e. those that pay the most per person in federal taxes—were polling strongly for the president. With the final votes counted, that trend was confirmed: more federal taxes, more pro-Obama. But what about Romney’s “gifts” line? Is it true that the more you get from the federal government, the more likely you are to reelect its head honcho? Once again, the data says no—at least on the state level. Mitt Romney’s parting blow falls flat: another gaffe, and one without so much as a grain of economic truth.

Here, in interactive form, is a graph comparing how each state voted with how much its average citizen receives in federal spending. There’s no correlation.

The average federal spending per person in Romney states is $10,795—in states that voted for Obama, $10,899. (The data on spending comes from the Census Bureau’s most recent Consolidated Federal Funds Report for fiscal year 2010.)

While people often vote their economic interests, they rarely gauge those interests by looking at the dollars they get from federal programs. And though those who don’t pay income tax are slightly more likely to vote Obama, tying the ballot box to government largesse just doesn’t work. Here’s that same data, with a trend line and measure of correlation.

The R2 measure shows how much the variation in one variable, Obama’s fortunes in the voting booth, is explained by the other, federal spending per capita in each individual state. A value of 0.0232 implies a 2 percent correlation—as statistically insignificant as they come.  

Importantly, those numbers also disprove the opposite argument, favored by some on the left, that red states are hypocritical budget-suckers. A state’s federal accounting for its average citizen will not affect how he or she votes.

So far, we’ve looked at the spending half of the equation. Now let’s bring in taxes. Here’s each state’s net “gift” from the federal government, per person—that is, the amount of federal spending on each state’s average citizen, minus the amount that average citizen pays to Uncle Sam—alongside how the states voted on November 6.

Even when we use federal spending minus federal revenue, there’s no correlation with final vote share. Red or blue, almost every state's average citizen gets far more from the federal government than he or she gives back in taxes. The average citizen in Obama-voting states gets a federal gift of $3,627 -- in Romney-voting states, $5,508. The only three states that give more than they get, per person, are Minnesota, New Jersey, and Delaware. All three gave their electoral votes to the president.

The size of the gift doesn’t tend to affect how states vote. Here’s that data with a trend line, and another trivial R2, indicating a paltry 2.9 percent correlation.

Romney struck out the first time he tried to link voting behavior to lax taxes—and now, he’s done it again, trying to blame his loss on beneficent Obama spending. It’s always tempting to accuse your political opponents of using economic dark arts to buy votes—Democrats and Republicans alike have been doing it for years. But the data (which you can explore in full here) tells a different story. We all get more than we give. And despite all the fear mongering, the federal government hasn’t been buying up votes. It couldn’t if it tried.