Paying income tax is not an overwhelming factor in how people vote.
It is clear that self-serving economic considerations are one factor in how people choose for whom they will vote.
All other things equal, farmers tend to vote for candidates who support farm subsidies and against ones who would cut them. Owners and employees of defense contractors tend to vote for candidates favoring higher defense spending. Teachers and civil servants vote for ones supporting higher public employee pay, and so forth.
Retirees do campaign hard for greater income redistribution in their favor, such as the Medicare drug benefit passed in 2003.
But most citizens take voting seriously and weigh a range of issues when deciding to vote. Direct economic self-interest often takes a back seat to other priorities in ways that are hard to predict.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is a smart man and must understand this. That is why his recent remarks that 47 percent of Americans are dependent on government and won't take responsibility for themselves and that this group naturally will vote for President Barack Obama are bizarre.
The 47 percent figure evidently is taken from the proportion of U.S. households that did not pay any federal income tax in 2010. It is not the sum of people who derive an economic benefit from some explicit or implicit government income transfer program; that number would be higher.
I've addressed the 47 percent of Americans don't pay any taxes assertion before. But in summary, the 47 percent of total households is a smaller percentage of total citizens because a high proportion of non-payers are single-person households. Most of the people in this category are either retirees, people in post-secondary education or people in their 20s working for low wages. A large majority of Americans fall into this group for at least part of their lives, and only a very small fraction are in it for their entire lives.
Assume, however, that Romney is correct and that not owing any federal income tax in a particular year does make you a natural Obama voter. Also assume the converse, that paying substantial amounts of federal income tax should make you want to vote for Romney. Then consider some groups whose voting behavior runs counter to these assumptions.
Start with people on Social Security living in non-urban areas. They tend to have somewhat lower earnings than their counterparts in urban areas as a whole and sharply lower ones than those in suburbia. So a relatively high proportion falls into the 47 percent who dont owe federal income taxes. Yet polling shows that non-urban senior citizens trend very sharply Republican.
Education levels long have been related to voting behavior. Yet the relationship between education and voting doesnt match with taxpaying.
People with education levels past 12 years, those with masters, doctorates or professional degrees like law and medicine, have incomes that are well above the national average. This group also pays a lot in income tax, often a greater proportion than many with even higher incomes, since the graduate-degree cohort still depends largely on earned income rather than on more favorably taxed dividends and capital gains.
Thus, they are far from the 47 percent who pay no taxes. Indeed, very few will lapse back into that group in retirement. No one would describe them as being unwilling to take responsibility for their lives. And yet this group trends highly Democratic in most elections.
Finally, let's consider married couples younger than 30 with 12 or fewer years of education and with children. Most in this group benefit from the Earned Income Tax Credit. For many it means that they dont owe any federal income tax at all, thus falling into the lucky-ducky 47 percent. Yet Romney reportedly is doing quite well among this group. Why?
The answer, again, is that voters in each of these groups, as in all others, take into account many other factors, including personal values and perceptions, in their voting decisions. The question of how much they themselves pay in taxes or get in benefits, often is well down their list of priorities in settling on a candidate.
There are tens of millions of people who will vote for Romney who fall into the 47 percent who dont pay income tax in a given year. One wonders why he is so dismissive of them.
Ed Lotterman teaches and writes in St. Paul, Minn. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.