Thus spoke Mitt Romney, infamously, in May 2012. It was a defining moment of the 2012 campaign, and much of the discussion since has focused on whether he was right that 47 percent of people paid no income taxes (he was, although only about 15 percent of people avoid all federal taxes), or whether he unfairly divided the nation into “makers” and “takers” (debatable).
Now comes a new paper from Dean Lacy of Dartmouth College, which aims to answer the question of whether the “takers” do indeed vote Democratic no matter what. The short answer is a qualified “no”: “benefiting from government spending has no effect on the probability of voting for Obama among voters under the age of 65,” he writes. Not only that, but voters in states that are net beneficiaries of federal spending were less likely to vote Obama: “A one-dollar increase in federal spending per tax dollar — moving from Ohio's ratio of 1.0 to North Dakota's ratio of 2.0 — is associated with a .13 decrease in a voter's probability of voting for Obama.”
Lacy looked at the results of a 2012 YouGov/Polimetrix survey, weighted to be nationally representative according to the 2008 American Community Survey. The survey asked whether people thought they were net beneficiaries of federal spending (takers), or net contributors to federal coffers (makers):
“Think about all the taxes you and your family pay to the U.S. federal government, such as income taxes and Social Security taxes. Also think about how much money you and your family get from the federal government in Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid, salary or wages if you are employed by the federal government or military, farm subsidies, education loans, veterans' benefits, or anything else. Would you say that you and your family get more money from the federal government than you pay in taxes, do you pay more in taxes than you get back, or do you pay about the same amount in taxes as you get back from the government?”
The question measures a person's perceived relationship with federal spending. Lacy does some modeling to check if these perceptions measure up with reality, and finds that by and large, they do. And in politics, perceptions are often just as important as reality. “The reflection of the real world is partly influenced by the perceptual filters of race and party identification,” he writes. “Democrats are more likely than Republicans or Independents to believe they benefit from federal spending, perhaps capturing reality, rationalizations or partisan rhetoric.”
But more to the point, there is very little relationship between a person's perceived status as a maker or taker, and how they voted. “For the less than one-quarter of American voters age 65 and over, a partisan divide does appear between net contributors and net beneficiaries. But for the remaining 77.5 percent of voters, the only appreciable effect of federal spending on vote choice in 2012 was that voters who believe they pay about the same in taxes as they receive in spending are more likely to vote Democratic than either net beneficiaries or net contributors.”
While the partisan divide between makers and takers may still loom large in the imaginations of congressmen and party leaders, in the real world, the notion that makers vote Republican and takers vote Democratic is, at most, a quarter-truth.
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