Much cyber-ink has already been spilled over Mitt Romney’s May fundraiser statement dismissing the “47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what” because they don’t pay income taxes and depend on government benefits. In my view, Romney’s statement reflects a crude and and largely inaccurate view of voter motivation. But it’s not as offensive as many claim.
As Bryan Caplan points out, Romney’s statement implies a close correlation between narrow self-interest and voting decisions. The “47 percent” will oppose him because they get a lot of government benefits and pay no income taxes. In reality, as Bryan describes in this article, the empirical evidence suggests that, on most issues, the connection between narrow self-interest and views on political issues is quite weak. Most people’s issue positions and voting decisions are driven by their view of the public interest rather than narrow materialism.
Bryan also points out that the GOP has actually managed to win the support of a large fraction of voters below the median income, even though most such people pay little or no federal income tax. The GOP has also done very well in recent elections among the elderly, even though they are the group that gets the lion’s share of federal benefits, and retirees also pay little in the way of income taxes. Conversely, a hefty 66 percent of Americans say that no one should have to pay more than 19% of their income in taxes, and 88% believe that no one should pay more than 29%, which suggests that support for tax limitation is far broader than the range of people who pay substantial federal income taxes. Narrow self-interest is very closely correlated with issue positions on a few policy questions (e.g. – restrictions on smoking). But these are exceptions.
That narrow self-interest is a relatively minor determinant of political views should not be surprising. If your goal in voting is to maximize your income, you would be better off devoting the time it takes to vote to looking for loose change lying around in the street outside the polling booth. Because of the extremely low likelihood that your vote will decisively affect the outcome of an election, the expected income gain from looking for change is going to be higher, unless you literally have billions of dollars at stake in the election. By contrast, if you care about the welfare of the rest of the public at least slighlty, it is rational to cast a vote, because the low probability of decisiveness is roughly offset by the huge number of people who will be positively affected if your vote does end up making the difference between victory and defeat (I describe the relevant calculations in detail here).
Altruistic motivation for voting doesn’t necessarily mean that voters weigh everyone’s interests equally. For example, racist, ethnocentric, or nationalistic voters value the well-being of their preferred group far more than that of others. But most voters do try to benefit some large part of society rather than merely seeking to maximize their personal narrow self-interest. Contrary to popular belief, the problem with most voters is not that they are selfish, but that they know little about the issues and often do a poor job of analyzing the information they do happen to know.
Although Romney’s remarks were inaccurate, I find them less offensive than many do. Political partisans often ascribe selfish or otherwise crude motivations to their opponents’ supporters. And campaign strategists routinely write off constituencies that are firmly in the opposition’s camp in order to focus on what Romney called “the 5 to 10 percent in the center that are independents.” Romney’s disparagement of Democratic voters is actually reminiscent of Obama’s famous 2008 statement describing people who opposed him in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary as “bitter” people who “cling to guns or religion, or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them.” Both comments drew a lot more outrage than was warranted.
William Saletan recognizes that Obama’s remarks were “patronizing,” but argues that they were less bad than Romney’s because Obama did not dismiss the possibility of winning these people over to his side. That’s true. But it’s important to remember that Obama was talking about Democratic primary voters – people who were relatively close to him in partisan loyalties and ideology; most of them supported Hillary Clinton, a fellow liberal Democrat who had few ideological differences with Obama. By contrast, Romney was talking about voters who are likely to oppose him in the general election – most of them Democrats ideologically hostile to the GOP. It’s much harder to win over the other party’s loyalists than to win over members of your own party. If you ask Romney whether he thinks he can win over people who voted for Santorum or Gingrich in the GOP primaries, I bet he could honestly answer yes.
UPDATE: Looking at Romney’s remarks again, I think it may not be fair to suggest that he ascribes the 47 percent’s support for Obama solely to self-interest. He also refers to their sense of entitlement and their “victim” mentality. But it’s nonetheless clear that self-interest is at least a major factor in his explanation, particularly when he emphasizes the claim that these people don’t pay income taxes and are dependent on government programs, citing their lack of exposure to taxation as the reason why “our message of low taxes doesn’t connect.”
UPDATE #2: It’s worth noting that Romney’s remark that there are 47% percent of voters he can’t hope to reach isn’t far from the truth. Even in mid-summer, polls showed that there are relatively few undecided voters. If you scale down his claim from 47% to say 40% or 43%, it seems highly plausible; And I don’t know whether he really meant to be statistically precise, as opposed to just convey the idea that Obama starts off with a large base of hard to shake support. Obvously, there is a comparable fraction of the electorate that Obama can’t hope to reach too. In a year where the electorate is polarized and the two candidates relatively familiar to voters by virtue of the fact that one is a polarizing incumbent and the other a second-time major candidate, it’s not easy to change minds.