Romney Needs the 47 Percent

In Virginia and elsewhere, many counties that supported Sen. McCain in 2008 rely heavily on government assistance and pay less in federal taxes, yet Gov. Romney seems to say he’ll ignore them.

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks to reporters in Costa Mesa, California, Monday, September 17, 2012. (AP/Charles Dharapak)
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks to reporters in Costa Mesa, California, Monday, September 17, 2012. (AP/Charles Dharapak)

Gov. Mitt Romney’s secretly recorded comments regarding the 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay federal income tax have garnered a wide variety of reactions from across the country.  Many are upset with his allegation that such people have a sense of entitlement or that they view themselves as victims. Some point out that the statistic is grossly misleading because it excludes payroll taxes and that low- and middle-income families often pay state and local taxes at a higher percentage rate of income than wealthier families. Others, such as Rep. Allen West (R-FL), say the statistic is proof we are “moving toward economic dependence instead of economic freedom.”

But what surprises me the most about the comments is what they seem to say about the former Massachusetts governor’s understanding of his own base and the people he must depend on to win his race for president:

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. …

Our message of low taxes doesn’t connect … so my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. What I have to do is convince the five to 10 percent in the center that are independents, that are thoughtful.

If one simply looks at the Electoral College, the states upon which Gov. Romney is attempting to build an electoral majority are not more affluent than the states likely to support President Obama. In fact the numbers are quite the contrary. If Gov. Romney is to build upon the states won by Sen. John McCain four years ago, he will begin with a base of 22 states, of which, according to the Census Bureau, 17 have median family incomes below the national average.

During the 2010–2011 period, the average median income of the 22 McCain states was less than $47,000, or about 7 percent below the national average. States carried by then-Sen. Obama of Illinois in 2008 had an average median income of more than $54,000. Altogether the states carried by Sen. Obama had median incomes about 16 percent higher than those carried by Sen. McCain. In short, blue states are more prosperous than red ones.

Figure 1

The blue states also pay a lot more taxes. According to the Tax Foundation, the 29 states (plus the District of Columbia) that went for Democratic Party contender Obama in 2008 accounted for more than three-quarters of all of the federal revenue collected in 2005, the last year for which the foundation has state-by-state data. Nine of the 10 states with the highest per capita federal tax payments voted for him. Nine of the 10 states with the lowest per capita federal tax payments voted for Sen. McCain. The average per capita federal tax payments in the McCain states was a little less than $5,500 whereas the average in the Obama states was nearly $7,700, about 40 percent more.

In terms of entitlement, states that rely most heavily on federal dollars and perhaps feel, in Gov. Romney’s words, the federal government “has a responsibility to care for them” largely lined up for Sen. McCain as a group. In fact, excluding the District of Columbia, the only Obama state that made the top 10 in per capita federal payments was Virginia. The other nine were all McCain states. And of the 22 states carried by Sen. McCain, 18 were in the top half of states in per capita federal spending.

But most states cover a lot of territory and hold a lot of people. Maybe if we break states down in smaller pieces, Gov. Romney’s video comments will be less counterfactual. So let’s look at Virginia—a state that the Romney campaign is pouring millions into each week to try to win it back into the red column.

Barack Obama was the first Democratic presidential nominee to carry Virginia in 44 years. He won less than a third of the counties in the state. If you exclude the six counties of Northern Virginia, he lost the state by 90,000 votes. But he won Northern Virginia with 60 percent of the vote, and won the state by 232,000 votes. Sen. McCain’s strongest support came from Southwest Virginia, where 13 relatively small counties gave him a little more than 64 percent of the vote and a margin of 41,000.

Figure 2

While Northern Virginia and Southwest Virginia are at opposite ends of the spectrum politically, they are also at opposite ends in terms of economic well-being. But the correlation between economic well-being and political allegiance is the exact opposite of the correlation Gov. Romney made in his secretly recorded tape.

The county that gave President Obama the highest proportion of its votes in 2008 was Arlington County in northern Virginia, where he racked up nearly 73 percent of the votes cast for either of the two major party candidates. The county that gave him the lowest percentage was Scott County (in the rural southwest where Virginia bumps up against Tennessee, Kentucky, and western North Carolina) where he got only 29 percent of the vote.

U.S. Census data indicate that more than a quarter of the 92,000 households in Arlington had incomes over $150,000 while less than 1 percent of Scott County households had incomes over that level. Only 22 percent of Arlington households had incomes under $50,000 while 67 percent of Scott County households had incomes below that level.

Median household income in Arlington was a little less than $95,000 or about 88 percent higher than the national average. Scott County median income was a little more than $34,000, or about 32 percent below the national average. Arlington’s median was a little below that of most jurisdictions in Northern Virginia where President Obama got his winning margin. It was $4,000 higher than Prince William but $10,000 below Fairfax County and $20,000 below Loudoun County medians.

Median household income in Scott County was higher than many counties in Southwest Virginia—about $5,000 above nearby Dickenson and Buchannan but lower than the median income in next-door Washington County.

There was an even more dramatic difference between these two counties in their reliance on federal government support payments. Scott County has a higher percentage of elderly than Arlington and as a result more people receiving old-age and survivors’ insurance under Social Security. Counting retired workers, their wives, children, and surviving spouses, 21 percent of Scott County residents are receiving old-age and survivors’ benefits. The difference is even more dramatic with respect to Social Security Disability Insurance, which is being granted to 7.7 percent of the population of Scott County but only 0.7 percent of Arlingtonians.

Nearly everyone eligible for Social Security (either old-age, survivors, or disability) is also eligible for Medicare. So it might be expected that Scott County residents are significantly more reliant on Medicare as well.

Supplemental Security Income for disabled citizens unable to subsist on their Social Security benefits is another program that citizens in Scott County rely on much more than citizens in Arlington or other parts of Northern Virginia. Despite the fact that Arlington has a population more than 8.5 times larger than Scott County, it has fewer citizens that qualify for Supplemental Security Income based on disability than Scott County.

There is also a major difference in the degree to which citizens in the two counties rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. A total of 14 percent of Scott County residents turn to the program for food assistance, and only 2 percent of Arlingtonians use it.

Scott is not an outlier in is utilization of either of these two programs relative to its neighbors in Southwest Virginia. In fact, in neighboring Lee County the utilization rate for Supplemental Security Income is 35 percent higher than Scott County, and for supplemental nutrition assistance it is 50 percent higher.

When Southwest Virginia as a whole is compared to Northern Virginia as a whole, it has about 9 times as many nonelderly Supplemental Security Income beneficiaries per capita and about 5 times as many supplemental nutrition assistance beneficiaries per capita.

Figure 3

To an extent, numbers document how difficult life can be for many in this part of Virginia but they really don’t do the story justice. A former insurance executive named Wendell Potter who grew up in Tennessee, not far from this area of Virginia, wrote about attending the annual health fare in Wise, Virginia, one of the 13 Southwest Virginia counties we are talking about. He describes his feelings as he walked through the Wise County Fairgrounds where the “Remote Area Medical Health Expedition” took place:

Surreal. I felt as if I’d stepped into a movie set or a war zone. Hundreds of people … were waiting in lines that stretched out of view. … I noticed some of those lines led to barns and cinder-block buildings with row after row of animal stalls, where doctors and nurses were treating patients.

The medical health fair treated hundreds. Skin cancers were cut from people. Complex tests normally administered in hospitals were done on the dusty fairgrounds. Hundreds were treated but hundreds more had to be turned away due to lack of capacity. Potter concluded:

As I took in the scene at the Wise County Fairgrounds, I realized that the folks in those lines and animals stalls could have been my relatives or my parents’ neighbors. … I could tell from their faces that they were people with whom I shared cultural roots, but who—for whatever reason—simply hadn’t had the good fortune to land a high-paying job and a cushy office in a Philadelphia skyscraper.

Southwest Virginia is not unique. In 2008 many of these counties were among the 22 percent of U.S. counties that voted more Republican in a Democratic year than they had voted four years earlier in a Republican year. Combined, these counties cast 4,000 more Republican votes in 2008 than they cast in 2004, increasing the Republican percentage from 61 percent to 64 percent.

They appear to have a lot in common with the other counties that moved more heavily into the Republican column. On a map these counties have a distinct pattern starting in Southwest Pennsylvania, moving down the center of the Appalachian highlands through West Virginia and Kentucky, and then turning west through Kentucky and Tennessee through Arkansas and Oklahoma, reaching down into Northern Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas.

This map is not dissimilar to one published last year by the National Center for Health Statistics of the counties in the United States that have seen life expectancy decline, and that map is not dissimilar to others that show areas of our country with elevated levels of diabetes and heart disease. So it seems Gov. Romney is a much bigger beneficiary of the political support of the 47 percent he has chosen to attack at his fundraisers than he appears to realize.

In light of that, my suggestion to him is that, contrary to the strategy he laid out at the fundraiser, he should “worry about those people.” In fact, I would think he should worry a great deal about those people, about why they support his candidacy and what he can do to keep them from defecting.

Scott Lilly is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

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Scott Lilly

Senior Fellow