Romney’s ‘47 Percent’ Comments Were Bad Economics and Bad Politics

Romney’s “47 percent” comment misunderstands U.S. politics. Daniel Gross explains why.

Nicholas Kamm / AFP-Getty Images

Mitt Romney’s really stuck his foot in it when he declared that the 47 percent of Americans who, because they pay no federal income taxes and receive government benefits, can’t be dislodged from the Democratic column. The statement was wrong in 47 different ways. People who worked all their life and now subsist primarily on Social Security aren’t looking for a handout, and have not demonstrated an unwillingness to be responsible. The same holds for people who are on Medicare. And ditto for all the working poor, who would be paying income taxes if Republicans hadn’t invented and supported the Earned Income Tax Credit. What’s more, plenty of people who do pay income taxes rely on entitlements. Mitt Romney may not need Medicare, but even well-off people in their 60s would be hard-pressed to buy their own insurance.

In addition to economic ignorance, Romney’s comments betray political ignorance. There isn’t some huge Democratic-Republican divide between those who receive government benefits and those who don’t. The only demographic slice that John McCain won in 2008 was the elderly—all of whom receive federal benefits. What’s more—and this is what Republicans inexplicably refuse to get, year after year—there isn’t a massive Democratic-Republican divide between those who earn a lot and those who earn a little. Plenty of those who don’t pay income tax—for all sorts of different reasons—vote for Republicans. And plenty of those who pay lots of income tax vote for Democrats. In other words, Romney’s 53 percent includes a big chunk of the 1 percent, and a big chunk of the 10 percent.

Progressives often wonder why working-class people in the heartland vote against their own economic interests when they pull the Republican lever. Movement conservatives are similarly puzzled by the voting behavior of the coastal-dwelling well-off. In fact, among some pockets of the rich, the more Republicans cut their taxes, the madder they get. Back in 2003, I coined the term Bushenfreude to describe people who hated George W. Bush but loved his tax cuts. I routinely encountered these folks in Fairfield County, Conn., like the person who had bought a brand new BMW and then filled it with Howard Dean yard signs.

Bushenfreude was in full flower in the fall of 2008. That year, for example, the town in which I live, Westport, Conn. (which in 2009 sported a median household income of nearly $148,000 and a median home value of $957,000), voted for Obama over McCain by a 2–1 margin, even though Obama had pledged to raise taxes on high earners. Greenwich, Conn., one of the most Republican of towns ever, the Versailles of Fairfield County, gave Obama a 54–46 majority in 2008. Similar outcomes were evident in areas where the 1-to-10 percent congregate: precincts of Manhattan; brownstone Brooklyn; Westchester County; moneyed New Jersey suburbs like Summit and Montclair; Brookline, Mass.; Seattle; and huge chunks of southern and northern California. The New York Times had a great article on Tuesday about the giving habits of residents of the San Remo, one of the more exclusive apartment buildings in Manhattan.

Some of these folks are limousine liberals, to be sure. But a lot of them are what I call Town Car liberals: self-made achievers who work at the upper levels of industries such as finance, communications, media, and health care. And some of these folks are what I call Prius liberals: West Coasters who thrive in the global technology, e-commerce, and entertainment industries.

In Texas, if you walk into a room full of people with seven-figure net worths, chances are they’re all Republicans. But in California, or New York, or the suburbs of Chicago, chances are such a room would be split pretty evenly between partisans of the two major parties. And it’s not the case that all the Democratic-leaning rich folks are leftist liberal-arts majors living off trust funds. Rather, they’re educated people—many with a graduate degree—with backgrounds in economics, or law, or science, or engineering, and who work in meritocratic, gay-friendly professions that pay high salaries. I’d wager that virtually none of the employees of Google and Facebook receive government benefits. And I’d bet the party identification of those employees is massively skewed toward Democrats.

Now, it’s a given that Obama will do less well among the high-earning crowd in 2012 than he did in 2008. Obama is less popular across the board, and lots of financial services folks (irrationally) blame the president for their industry’s implosion and dysfunction. But the wealthy are not all Romney fans, even though he’s an exemplary member of the class. If you spend some time among these folks, as I do—I live and work among this species—you’ll find that they care plenty about taxes, home values, the markets, and their personal portfolios. They are quantitatively sophisticated people who can easily figure out precisely how much the Obamacare taxes might cost them, or how much they’d stand to pay in higher taxes if the Bush tax cuts expire in their entirety.

But—and this is hard for Romney and many other conservatives to fathom—their tax brackets are not the only thing they care about. They could be concerned or interested in any of a half-dozen issues that matter more, and on which Romney has made it eminently clear that he’s not on their side: gay rights, Medicare, health-care reform, climate change, federal support for alternative energy, or foreign policy. Just as poor voters might cling to their guns and religion, wealthy voters cling to the values they cherish. The well-off vote for Democrats for a host of reasons: because they were raised that way, because their values are more in sync, because they are repelled by the harsh social conservatism of the Republican Party, because they have a different sense of what constitutes justice.

This will come as a shock to the guys at The Wall Street Journal op-ed page, but for many Americans, there is more to life than marginal tax rates. And that’s the real folly of trying to divide the electorate based on income level.