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The Geography of the 47%

Following the big Mother Jones release of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's hidden-camera comment on the "47 percent" of Americans "who will vote for the president no matter what," my colleague at The Atlantic, David Graham, posted an article Monday looking at the real "47 percent." Using the Tax Foundation's data on 2008's income tax non-payers (people who filed a tax return but did not actually owe federal income taxes), he found that the states with the highest rates tended to be traditionally Republican states. Graham writes:

Romney's statements are a little unclear, but it appears that the 47 percent figure represents all of those who pay no income tax, rather than the Democratic base. His problem is that those people are disproportionately in red states -- that is, states that tend to vote Republican...One important note about these numbers: This measures only those Americans who filed for taxes with no liability. Millions more didn't even file; it's those millions, added to the estimated 52 million here, who combine to make that 47 percent.

Derek Thompson, another Atlantic colleague, followed up on Graham's post with this analysis:

In 2011, 47% of Americans paid no federal income taxes. Within that group, two-thirds still pay payroll taxes. The rest are almost all either (a) old and retired folks collecting Social Security or (b) households earning less than $20,000. Overall, four out of five households not owing federal income tax earn less than $30,000, according to the Tax Policy Center.

I thought it might be useful to update the map and do a bit more statistical analysis. Cities fellow Sara Johnson tracked down 2010 data on the "47 percent" of non-payers courtesy the Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan tax research group. (The full 2010 data set is available here.) The Martin Prosperity Institute's Zara Matheson mapped the data.

Map by MPI's Zara Matheson

Three states had more than 40 percent nonpayers — Mississippi (44.5 percent), followed by Georgia (42.5 percent), and Alabama (40.3 percent) — and all three were solidly for McCain in 2008. The remaining top ten were largely in the Sunbelt: Florida (39.0 percent), Arkansas (38.8 percent), South Carolina (38.8 percent), New Mexico (38.7 percent), Idaho (38.6 percent), Texas (38.5 percent), and Utah (38.3 percent). All but two of the top ten — Florida and New Mexico — went for McCain. At least a third of the filers in about half of the states (26) were non-taxpayers.

The ten states with the lowest amount of non-taxpayers were: Alaska (22.0 percent), Massachusetts (26.3 percent), New Hampshire (26.3 percent), North Dakota (26.3 percent), Connecticut (26.6 percent), D.C. (27.0 percent), Maryland (28.2 percent), Wyoming (28.6 percent), Washington (29.0 percent), and Virginia (29.2 percent). Only three of those went to McCain in 2008.

MPI's Charlotta Mellander ran correlates between non-taxpayers and a range of political, economic, and demographic variables. As we always note, correlation does not equal causation. Still, her findings support the notion that states with more nonpayers trend conservative.

As indicated by the state-by-state breakdown above, nonpayer states were more likely to vote for McCain than Obama in the last presidential election. The percentage of nonpayers by states is positively correlated with McCain voters (.40) and negatively with Obama (-.38).

The percentage of nonpayers is even more highly correlated with the percent of people identifying as conservative (.63). It was negatively associated with the percentages identifying as moderate (-.60) as well as liberal (-.53).

Nonpayers were also more likely in states with lower wages (-.55) and incomes (-.63), as well as higher levels of unemployment (.47). Nonpayer states were more likely to view economic conditions as "bad" (.37) and "getting worse" (.36). Higher percentages of nonpayers were also associated with lower levels of happiness and well-being (with a correlation of -.36).

Despite Romney's assumption that Americans who don't pay federal income taxes are solidly in the Democratic camp, our quick examination of their political geography tells a much different story. In fact, the states that are home to the highest share of tax non-payers may actually contain the very Republican votes that Romney needs.

Keywords: Taxes, Mitt Romney

Richard Florida is Co-Founder and Editor at Large at The Atlantic Cities. He's also a Senior Editor at The Atlantic, Director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, and Global Research Professor at New York University. He is a frequent speaker to communities, business and professional organizations, and founder of the Creative Class Group, whose current client list can be found here. All posts »

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