By Bernie Becker and Peter Schroeder - 09/19/12 12:11 AM EDT
Large chunks of voters who don’t pay income taxes vote for Democrats, recent studies and figures suggest, but the issue isn’t as clear-cut as Mitt Romney made it seem in remarks at a private fundraiser this spring.
Many of these voters are senior citizens who are more likely to vote for Republicans, while active service members also can have their income tax liability erased. Others don’t pay income taxes because of deductions championed by Republicans in the past.
The Census Bureau has also found that, as of midway through 2011, 49 percent of all Americans lived in a household where at least one member was receiving some federal government benefit.
Romney, the GOP nominee for president, said at the May 17 fundraiser that 47 percent of people paid no income tax — and wrote off his ability to win them over.
“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what,” Romney said at a fundraiser in Boca Raton, Fla., according to a leaked videotape revealed by the liberal magazine Mother Jones.
Romney said this 47 percent are with Obama, are “dependent upon government” and “believe that they are victims” who are “entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing, to you name it.”
Those comments come as prominent GOP lawmakers in both chambers have pushed to increase the amount of people who owe federal income taxes, saying too many taxpayers have no “skin in the game” when it comes to soaring federal deficits.
While roughly half the population does not pay a federal income tax, many in that group do contribute to the government via payroll taxes, as well as state and local taxes.
Romney’s 47 percent figure comes after the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan think tank, found that 46.4 percent of households did not owe a federal income tax in 2011.
Roughly half of that group — 38.2 million — paid no income tax essentially because their income is so low that standard exemptions and deductions wiped away their liability.
The other half, some 37.9 million, didn’t owe the income tax after using some of the preferences and incentives in the tax code.
According to the Tax Policy Center, a family of four could make up to $45,775 and still not have to pay income tax because its tax liability would be erased by tax credits like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the child tax credit.
But in all, close to 80 percent of the 76.1 million households that did not have an income tax liability made under $30,000 a year.
Exit polls from the 2008 presidential election, as well as current surveys, do back Romney’s argument that many of those people are more likely to vote for Obama, though that finding is far from universal.
About three in four voters with a family income of less than $15,000 a year backed the president, according to exit polls. But only about six in 10 voters making between $15,000 and $30,000 voted for Obama.
Gallup also released data Tuesday showing that Obama pulls 58 percent of support from households making less than $24,000, compared to 34 percent for Romney.
Of those who saw tax breaks erase their income tax liability, 44 percent used tax credits and deductions that benefit the elderly, including a more robust standard deduction and the ability to exclude at least some Social Security benefits.
In presidential elections over the last four decades, Republicans have more often than not won a majority among older voters. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won 51 percent of voters 60 and older in 2008, exit polls found, the only age group among which he won a majority.
A New York Times/CBS News poll released this month also gave Romney a 15-percentage-point edge with voters 65 and older.
Around 30 percent of those whose income tax liability was erased by tax breaks used credits like the EITC and the child tax credit, which have been championed by Republican presidents and social-conservative groups in the past.
The child tax credit, for instance, was doubled during George W. Bush’s administration, though Republicans have recently pushed to allow an expansion of the credit from the stimulus package to expire.
Money earned by military members while serving in a combat zone is not taxable and is excluded as income.
The Tax Foundation has also suggested that many of those who don’t have an income tax liability actually live in states that tend to vote Republican.
Of the 10 states with the highest percentage of filers who did not have an income tax liability in 2010, eight voted for McCain.
At the other end of the spectrum, Obama captured seven of the 10 states with the lowest share of filers who didn’t owe federal income taxes.
Romney, meanwhile, has stuck by his comments in recent days, even while acknowledging he could have stated them more articulately.
But on Tuesday, Romney also said that many of those in the 47 percent had what he considered legitimate reasons for not owing income tax.
“There are a number of retirees, members of the military and so forth who aren’t paying taxes, and that’s as it should be,” Romney said in an appearance on Fox News.