The 47 Percent

While others argue about the political consequences of that Romney fundraising video, I wanted to briefly remark on the substance of his remarks.

Romney said:

[Obama] starts off with a huge number. These are the people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect.

This last bit makes sense to me, also it seems to be the general consensus that Obama will received at least 47% of the vote in this election. Where Romney goes wrong is in his deterministic connection of the low-income, non-income-tax-paying 47%, with the 47% of the voters who will definitely go for Obama. Yes, Obama will get the majority of the low-income vote, but some middle and upper-income voters will go for him too.

I think Romney was making the mistake of seeing two similar numbers floating around (the 47% or non-income-tax-payers and the 47% floor on the Obama vote) and equating them:

In one clip, Mr. Romney describes how his campaign would not try to appeal to “47 percent of the people” who will vote for Mr. Obama “no matter what.” They are, he says, “dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them.”

I agree that there’s a correlation between voting for Obama and being on government benefits, but the correlation is far from 100%.

Also, lots of middle and upper-income people rely heavily on government programs and also pay taxes (consider, for example, the civilian and military employees of the federal government, or local public employees such as teachers and police officers, or even researchers such as myself who receive government funds); I’m not sure where they fit into Romney’s story.

Here’s another bit:

In the video clips, Mr. Romney says his campaign is concentrating on the “5 to 10 percent in the center” whom he described as “thoughtful” voters.

But my impression from political science research is that swing voters are less thoughtful about political issues. Maybe that’s ok, maybe it’s a virtue not to follow politics or to be clear on which of the two parties is liberal and which are conservative, but I wouldn’t call such people “thoughtful voters.”

My point in all of this is not to slam Romney for his mistakes—a politician at a fundraiser is expected to tell his audience what they want to hear, not to bore them with statistics (that’s my job!) but rather to explore exactly what he’s saying and put it in the context of what we know about voters.

My purpose is not to fact-check a months-old speech but rather to use this news item to remind everyone of the flaws of simple deterministic attitudes about voting. I’m sure the Romney campaign has a much more sophisticated understanding of who might vote for him, but I hate to see those basic mistakes being made, even to a roomful of rich dudes who will, I assume, do just fine no matter what misconceptions they happen to have about American voters. (And comments such as this reveal the persistence of such misconceptions.)

I continue to be disturbed by claims that all or even most voters or one party or another are fools, dupes, moochers, bitter, etc etc, the idea that Democrats are a mix of deadbeats and trustfunders, or that Republicans are a mix of fat cats and religious fanatics.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Andrew Gelman

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science and director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University.