Givers, Takers, and Voters
By Steve Hochstadt
In May, Mitt Romney told an audience of big donors in Florida that 47 percent of Americans would vote for President Obama because they pay no income tax, are dependent on government, believe they are victims, and feel “entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.”
Romney said these people are hopeless: “I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
When a video of this speech was made public in September, Romney stood by his remarks. After he lost the election, he repeated this claim by attributing his defeat to the big “gifts” that Democrats had given and promised to “the African-American community, the Hispanic community and young people.”
A number of other unhappy Republicans made similar claims after the election. At the Republican governors conference two weeks ago, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal vehemently disagreed: “I absolutely reject that notion."
Since Romney’s 47 percent remarks became public, many writers have demonstrated how wrong those claims were. Many of the 47 percent who pay no federal income tax do pay state income tax. Many others pay other forms of taxes, such as property tax and payroll tax. A significant portion of the 47 percent are retirees, who are receiving Social Security on which they pay no income taxes, but which represents their own prior payments when they were working.
Of course, the idea that anyone who currently pays no federal income tax is therefore irresponsible, hopelessly dependent on government, and feels entitled to be supported by other Americans is a remarkable insult to millions of Americans who happen to have low incomes.
But what about the claim that they all voted for Obama? That’s worth investigating.
Romney was correct that poorer voters broke against him. The Fox News exit polls showed that Obama won 63 percent of voters with family incomes under $30,000, and 57 percent with family incomes between $30,000 and $50,000.
But among those who pay no federal income taxes because they are recipients of Social Security, Romney did quite well. In the age group over 65, who comprised 16 percent of the electorate, Romney won by a margin of 56 percent to 44 percent.
A closer look at county-level data reveals a much more complex pattern. If we consider all the benefit dollars that the federal government hands out, it turns out that Mitt Romney’s electoral theory is far from the truth. Romney overwhelmingly won many of the counties whose residents receive the greatest share of government benefits like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and income support, thus the poorest sections of the country. A few examples are instructive.
In McDowell County, West Virginia, 48 percent of all income comes from government benefits, to the tune of over $12,000 per person (these data are from 2009). Romney won 64 percent of their votes. Residents of Owsley County, Kentucky, receive 53 percent of their income from government benefits, over $13,800 each; Romney won the county 81 percent to 19 percent. In Ripley County, Missouri, and Scott County, Tennessee, over 40 percent of income is in federal benefits, and Romney won more than 70 percent of their votes.
Mitt Romney did very well in some other sections of the country where incomes are very low and government payments are very high, such as the northern part of lower Michigan and southern Oregon.
This certainly doesn’t fit with Romney’s 47 percent claims from May.
Why did these very poor regions vote Republican? The answer is simple: they are overwhelmingly white. McDowell County, which gave Romney the fewest votes among those I mentioned above, is 89 percent non-Hispanic white. Owsley, Ripley and Scott counties are at least 96 percent non-Hispanic white and gave over 70 percent of their votes to Romney.
When Mitt Romney insulted poor people who receive government payments, he was speaking of many of his own voters. But after the election, Romney was much clearer about which voters he meant to insult by saying that government payments had bought their votes. His comments two weeks ago singled out blacks and Hispanics as having been given “big gifts.”
He didn’t mention that the poor whites who voted for him receive identical gifts.
So we end up with the same racial profiling that conservatives have been using to win votes since Richard Nixon’s southern strategy. The euphemisms change, but the intent is the same. Tell whites that the Democrats are pandering to minorities, that their hard-earned dollars are being given away to undeserving moochers of other races, that real Americans need to take back our country from the colored masses who threaten us.
This seems to work only in states with significant minority populations. Charles Blow, who writes for the New York Times, pointed out recently that Obama won the white vote in states where the minority populations are small, such as Iowa, Maine and New Hampshire.
In Mississippi, where the black population is the largest (36 percent), he won only 10 percent of whites.
America is still a long way from being a post-racial nation.
Steve Hochstadt is a professor of history at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, and the author of Sources of the Holocaust (Palgrave, 2004) and Shanghai-Geschichten: Die jüdische Flucht nach China (Berlin: Hentrich und Hentrich, 2007). This article was originally published at L.A. Progressive.