Musings on the 2012 Presidential Election Campaign

I am not a journalist, and I make no attempt at pretending to be neutral in the matter of politics. Although I majored in political science at the University of Miami many years ago, I have no special knowledge about politics or elections. I do follow these things more closely than many nonprofessionals. In tune with the blog’s subtitle, here are some musings on the current campaign.

1.  Mitt Romney is not a mathematician. Whatever you may think of the Republican presidential candidate, you have to admit that math is pretty much beyond his ability, at least if you gauge by his public statements. In the recently released video where he talks about who is now being called “the 47 percent,” he says,”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. And I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49, 48—he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax.”

There are a couple implied factual statements in this paragraph, and a lot of naked opinion. The more salient implied fact is that forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. Who are being counted as “Americans” here? All 300 million plus? Children and the very old? Or the smaller number of “Americans of voting age?” For some helpful information on reaching an answer, see the charts from Planet Money at NPR. Digging more deeply, we find that the statistic originates in a 2011 report from the Tax Policy Center(TPC). Reading it we learn that the number is about 46% of households. So Romney is generalizing households into Americans. (Many other commentators do the same.) Not accurate, to be sure, since the crux of his statement is that those Americans won’t vote for him, since it is individual citizens–not households–that vote. And not all household members of voting age are registered to vote, much less likely to vote. But having set straight the real meaning of the TPC report, let’s cut him some slack on the use of that number.

The real problem with his argument is his conflating the fact that a household is not liable to pay federal income tax with the opinion, surely implied if not outright stated explicitly, that all of those households automatically support President Obama, and that his time trying to persuade them to lead worthwhile lives would be wasted. “And 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.” That’s what he says: If you don’t pay federal income taxes, you are leading a worthless life. He says that paying more taxes than he owes would make him unqualified to be president, but when other people who are not obligated to pay income tax don’t pay it they are leading worthless lives. There is a fair argument to be made that all adults should pay some amount in income tax. One could state it would be a de minimis amount for those at the bottom of the income ladder. To be sure this week many conservatives are urging Romney to advance that position. But his statement on the disclosed video is not a reasoned argument for such a provision. Instead it is an arrogant and hypocritical “us vs them” appeal to his audience.

Moving beyond Romney’s grossly arrogant assumptions about those Americans who do not pay federal income tax lies his inability to do simple math. If all of the 47% of Americans who don’t pay the tax support President Obama, then it would still be very likely that some portion of those who do pay taxes also support Obama. If that number is merely 10% of the remaining 53% of Americans, the President would claim well over 57% of the total support of all Americans. And in terms of recent elections, that would qualify as a landslide. Clearly that is not actually the case. In short, Mr. Romney has set up a canard that has no basis in fact and merely serves to show his arrogance and penchant to be dismissive of those he perceives as supporting either a progressive income tax or President Obama.

2. The time to persuade voters runs out every day from now on, not just on November 6. Many of us have particular news and opinion sources that we follow. I am partial to MSNBC, and as I prepare for my weekday I watch “Morning Joe.” When Joe Scarborough complains about how Mr. Romney is mucking up his campaign, he keeps saying that he’s got “N” days to the election to persuade voters. I’ve heard pundits of many views express the same sentiment. They’re all wrong. Early voting has already started and in the next two weeks 43 states will have early voting underway, whether by in-person voting or absentee ballot submission. Professor Michael McDonald of George Mason University tracks early voting and has a chart showing 2008 statistics here.  In many states early votes made up a substantial portion of the total votes cast; in a few they were more than half. Professor McDonald anticipates that for the 2012 election more than one-third of the votes will be cast early. Therefore the electorate’s collective state of mind on “election day” is no longer sufficient to predict outcomes; likewise turning around a campaign must be accomplished for each of the actual 40 plus election days that remain between now and November 6.

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