Ten Miles Square


September 18, 2012 8:30 AM The 47 Percent

By Andrew Gelman

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]

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


  • Tony Gualtieri on September 18, 2012 9:03 AM:

    Surely there must be data available to calculate this correlation. What proportion of Romney supporters are voters he doesn't "worry about?" In the broadest construction, he doesn't worry about these 47% and he doesn't worry about Obama voters. Who's left?

  • W.R. German on September 18, 2012 9:38 AM:

    "I’m sure the Romney campaign has a much more sophisticated understanding of who might vote for him"

    I think you're dead wrong, and here is why. Romney went twice to Nascar events and insulted the fans both times. His campaign organization is a clubfooted mess with no clear lines of command. He said this week that Middle Class means earning a quarter million dollars per annum. And he thinks his great-grandpappy's move to Mexico is real cred with Latino voters.

    Sophisticated understanding? I wouldn't trust Romney to manage a home aquarium.

  • Lance on September 18, 2012 9:58 AM:

    This is actually a three circle Vin Diagram.

    First circle, those Americans who are reliably democratic voters.

    Second cirlce, those Americans who are in someway dependent on the government.

    Third circle, those Americans who didn't pay Federal Income taxes in 2009.

    Myself, in 2009 I PAID Federal Income Taxes, I'm a reliable Democratic voters, and I don't consider myself dependent on the Government because they pay my company for my services as a JOB!

    This Vin diagram divides all Americans into eight groups.

    Is Romney discarding those that fall into the intersection or those who fall into any of the circles?

  • RimKitty on September 18, 2012 10:19 AM:

    The fact that the states needing the most government assistance are definitely Repub strongholds makes his whole argument rather ridiculous.

  • Steve on September 18, 2012 11:12 AM:

    Just for the record, Lance, it's "Venn Diagram."

    I think a "Vin Diagram" would be something drawn on the blackboard by legendary Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully. Probably in the shape of a Dodger Dog.

  • john on September 19, 2012 3:09 PM:

    The thing that most republicans do not seem to understand is that Romney is not behind cause he is Romney. He is behind in the polls cause the more folks understand what Ryan and him plan on doing, the more they do not like it.

    That is why Romney does not want to get into any specifics.

    It is very simple.

    A good example is Romney's white paper on education and his freedom agenda and plans to gut grad school support. Yup, you are free to be on your own. How in the earth does he plan on supporting the long term nation security need for highly educated and skill workers if his plan guts graduate school support? Simple put, he can't.

  • stan chaz on September 20, 2012 9:51 PM:

    47% 100% Flip, flop, flip....
    Hey... I KNEW that this poor rich guy was out of touch,
    but now.... I think he’s just touched.
    What does our country owe its people?
    What do our people owe our country?
    What do we ...we the people....owe to each other?
    ....as part of a society called America?
    Are we in the jungle, or are we a community?
    Romney and Company has an answer.
    And it ain’t pretty.
    They smirk ...and smile ...and say to us:
    TO HELL with all those “moochers” and “free-loaders”
    receiving Medicare, or Veterans Benefits, or Pell Grants,
    or Earned Income & Child Tax Credits, or Head Start, or Social Security,
    or Unemployment, or Medicaid, or Food Stamps, or on Disability,
    Romney says TO HELL with all of us that are struggling to stay afloat,
    to those in the Middle-class, and to those hoping to get there.
    Romney says TO HELL with the hungry, the homeless, the helpless,
    and the hopeless ...and to all the biblical “least of these”.
    Does he even know the Christian New Testament?
    Romney says TO HELL with the “47% of America” -- the “losers”
    that Romney so easily dismisses and disrespects as “dependents”.
    Romney wines and complains... INCREDIBLY
    ...that we’re shamelessly sponging off of him,
    and off of all of his poor-poor-poor super-rich friends
    .....all those super-rich folks who want to BUY this ELECTION,
    .....all those super-rich folks who want to BUY this COUNTRY.
    Trickle-down economics? Hey sure, why not- let them eat cake.
    It’s all the same. Always has been.
    It’s crumbs for us, and Cadillacs and car elevators, and loopholes & lower taxes for them.
    That is, if they, AND the bailed-out banks,
    AND the big corporations pay ANY taxes at all....
    When THEY get a break- they deserve it.
    But if YOU get a break, it’s a handout.
    Tell me - who are the REAL “takers”, who are the REAL creators,
    who are the TRUE workers and builders? Who are the REAL “victims” here?
    Who’s in the Cayman Islands trying to avoid taxes, and deducting his trick horses?
    Who gave their LIVES and limbs ...in unpaid and un-needed wars?
    Whose sweat, .....on whose brows, has BUILT this great country?
    Was it the Romney’s of this world ...or us?
    But we still have a voice. It’s called our VOTE.
    Loud and Clear -- Just say NO.
    Say NO to Romney & Company ...and what they stand for.
    This is STILL our country. Our children’s country.
    And we mean to KEEP it that way. Period.
    Romney should “self-deport” himself back to Mexico,
    where his grandpa fled to avoid US marriage monogamy laws.
    ‘Cause Prince Mitt not only wants to kill the Dream Act,
    but the American Dream as well.
    We need a President for ALL the people.

  • R&R 2012!!! on October 09, 2012 9:11 AM:

    Dear Mr. Gelman:

    What say you sir, now...after Obama's incredible SHELLACKING by the future President Romney? The Emporer has NO clothes. Mitt Romney absolutely SCHOOLED your guy and everyone knows it. Even liberals...who are now in flabbergasting damage control mode. Oh, the new mantra is "he lied" please...can't you all do better than that? I cannot WAIT until the debate on Foreign policy where Romney will decimate this fraud even more! And I think I will throw a party for the Ryan/Bumblin Biden debate...good luck, you'll need it!