How crucial will next week's presidential debate be for Mitt Romney? Well, there seems to be near-universal consensus that it represents his last, best shot at turning around the race. Amazingly, it isn't just pundits saying this – but also Mr. Romney’s own advisers, who, rather than lowering expectations, have been telling reporters that the debate will, indeed, shake things up, while predicting a win for their candidate. (How's that for pressure?)
Of course, historical evidence shows that debates seldom affect the outcome of presidential elections. Even the most memorable debate moments wound up having little to no impact on the polls.
On the other hand, as Democratic strategist Bob Shrum points out in The Daily Beast, history also shows that "in the first debate, against an incumbent president, a challenger tends to win." In fact, it's happened five of the past six times (the exception being Bob Dole, who failed to score a win against President Bill Clinton).
If Romney can win his first debate against President Obama and move the polls even a point or two back in his direction, it would certainly help. So what does Romney need to do when he faces off against the president on Oct. 3? Here’s a quick Decoder cheat sheet:
Be specific. One of Romney’s biggest problems in this campaign is that voters still don’t seem to have a clear grasp of how he would fix the economy. Although Romney has released, at different stages, a 59-point plan and, more recently, a five-point plan, he’s come under fire for skipping key specifics – such as how he would pay for his proposed tax cuts. If Romney could present voters with a few new details that go beyond broadly outlined concepts and platitudes, it might go a long way toward convincing them that he, not Mr. Obama, would be the best man suited to the economic task at hand.
Be surprising. Because he’s currently losing, Romney has to find a way to “win” the debate outright – which means a solid, “safe” performance won’t be enough. He needs to leave a big impression on viewers, and make clear that Obama is more vulnerable than it seemed. To do that, he probably has to pursue a line of attack that catches Obama off guard (and hope that he wins the subsequent exchange). Because Romney can’t afford to alienate any swing voters, it's also critical that whatever attack he launches seems fair – so, nothing personal. If it's an area where the press might actually side with Romney, that would help, too. And if he can find a way to sink the knife in with a smile, so much the better.
Be self-deprecating. Remember Ronald Reagan saying he wouldn’t hold his opponent’s youth and inexperience against him? A line like that can go a long way toward undercutting a supposed weakness, while at the same time, showing viewers that the candidate has a sense of humor. There's a long list of things Romney could poke fun at about himself, from his taxes to his stiff demeanor to his dog. If he can pull it off, it could give him a new way to connect with voters – another area where he has struggled.
As we said, it may not be enough to catapult Romney into the lead. But if it can give him even a tiny bump in the polls, then he’d go into the next debate with momentum and the sense that Obama may be in trouble. That’s a position he’d certainly like to be in.
Speaking before the Clinton Global Initiative, Mr. Romney made a rueful reference to that address, saying, “If there’s one thing we’ve learned this election season, it’s that a few words from Bill Clinton can do any man a lot of good.”
Then he went on to praise Mr. Clinton’s post-White House career. “President Clinton has devoted himself to lifting the downtrodden around the world,” said Romney. “One of the best things that can happen to any cause, to any people, is to have Bill Clinton as its advocate. That is how needy and neglected causes have become global initiatives.”
Wow. Why the amity, considering recent political history?
The first answer is obvious: This wasn’t the time or place for renewed combat. Romney was outlining his ideas about foreign aid in front of an audience of international charitable contributors. Seriousness was the order of the day.
And Romney supplied that. His speech, during which he outlined a proposed aid program called “Prosperity Pacts,” was well received. NBC’s Garrett Haake on First Read called it “perhaps his most detailed presentation of how the United States might interact with the developing world in a Romney administration.”
Politico’s Maggie Haberman went further, calling it “one of Romney’s best-prepared, and best-delivered, speeches of the campaign.”
The address extolled the nobility of work and the power of free enterprise to lift people out of poverty. Romney’s proposed Prosperity Pacts would entail working with the private sector to identify barriers to trade, investment, and entrepreneurship in developing nations. In return for lifting those barriers, nations would receive a US aid package focused on developing a business-friendly infrastructure and on helping small- and medium-sized businesses.
This public Romney sounded far more compassionate than the man seen on a secret video at a fundraiser describing 47 percent of Americans as people who see themselves as “victims” and are overly dependent on government aid.
“Ours is a compassionate nation,” said Romney at the Clinton Global Initiative. “We look around us and see withering suffering. Our hearts break.”
Of course, to be overly political about it – and that’s what we do – a second reason for Romney to be generous would be his campaign’s continued attempt to use Clinton as a wedge to splinter President Obama’s electoral coalition.
The Romney campaign has portrayed the Clinton presidency as a model of budget-balancing and welfare reform, as compared to the big-government Obama White House. Hence the Romney welfare ads which claim that Obama is ending Clinton’s welfare-to-work requirements. (Independent fact checkers have judged those ads to be false.)
Clinton has been vociferous in his defense of Obama, though, as his convention speech showed. In that sense, the Romney triangulation strategy isn’t working – the Big Dog has not been lured into saying new critical things about the guy who beat his wife for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
Last, this could be Romney’s “no mas” moment. Like boxer Robert Duran, who uttered that phrase to stop his 1980 championship bout with Sugar Ray Leonard, Romney may just want to avoid goading Clinton into renewed attack.
Should Mitt Romney really be spending any more of what little time he has left in Ohio?
We ask this as Mr. Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, embark on a three-day bus tour in the Buckeye State (actually, it’s a three-day tour for Mr. Ryan; Mr. Romney is joining the tour a day late).
Yes, Ohio has long been seen as critical for Romney. At this point, anyone and everyone who follows politics can probably recite the mantra: “No Republican has won the White House without winning Ohio." And it’s true that pulling out of Ohio would likely be interpeted as a sign of bigger troubles for the Romney campaign.
But at some point in every election, it becomes clear that certain states regarded as "tossups" are probably lost causes for one candidate or the other. And for some time now, Ohio has not looked good for Romney. President Obama has held a lead in the Buckeye State for many months, and recent polls show that lead is growing. A new Washington Post poll out Tuesday has Obama up in Ohio by eight points – prompting The Post’s political blog "The Fix" to move the state from “tossup” to “lean Obama.”
In Pictures: On the Campaign Trail with the Romney-Ryan ticket
The reasons behind Ohio’s more Obama-friendly environment range from the auto bailout (which remains popular in a state where one out of eight workers is employed in auto-related jobs) to the fact that Ohio’s economy is actually in better shape than the nation’s as a whole. Romney has also failed miserably at telegraphing the kind of cultural populism that has traditionally boosted Republican candidates among Ohio’s white, working class voters.
All of which makes us wonder if we've reached a point where Romney should just cut his losses and move on? Forget about Ohio, and focus like a laser on the remaining states that polls show he can – and, in fact, absolutely must – win. By which we mostly mean: Florida.
You see, Romney can still win without Ohio. It wouldn’t be easy, but it’s technically doable (he would have to win Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, and New Hampshire - all states where current polls show Romney behind, but none of which look quite as bad for him as Ohio). But take Florida out of the equation for Romney, and the math becomes nearly impossible. (Without Florida, Romney has to win all the states listed above, plus Wisconsin, which is looking more and more uphill for him, plus, of course, Ohio – which brings us back to where we started.)
Right now, polls show Romney is also behind in Florida, but not by much – Tuesday's Washington Post poll shows Obama with a four-point lead. And unlike Ohio, where Obama has been strong pretty much throughout the campaign, Florida has actually had Romney in the lead at different times. It’s not hard to envision him regaining an edge there again.
Bottom line: with just over 40 days to go before Election Day, the Romney campaign needs to think hard about how – and where – they’re spending every hour and every dollar. Evidence suggests that these three days in Ohio might be better spent elsewhere.
In Pictures: On the Campaign Trail with the Romney-Ryan ticket
President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama were guests Tuesday on ABC’s “The View,” the talk show with the numerous female hosts. It’s an appearance the First Couple taped Monday after they arrived in New York for the opening of the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly.
Mr. Obama also found time to jam in a quick appearance on NBC’s “Today” to talk education policy. But he hasn’t scheduled a one-on-one meeting with any of the foreign leaders who’ve come to New York for the UN festivities.
Critics have hit this state of affairs hard, saying that Obama is slighting foreign policy in favor of fluffy shows that aid his reelection effort. In particular they’ve complained about the fact that Obama declined a meeting request from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“The president’s unwillingness to meet with Bibi Netanyahu when he is in New York but instead willing to go on the ‘The View’ in New York – I mean, I think it speaks volumes to the lack of seriousness with which the president is taking the current situation,” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia in a Monday conference call organized by the Romney campaign.
First, we’d agree that “The View” appearance is reelection-related. As our colleague Gloria Goodale noted yesterday, softer news-like talk shows have become a favorite venue for the Obama campaign. They’re friendlier than a press conference, and guests benefit from the good feelings viewers have toward their favorite shows.
On "The View," for instance, Barack and Michelle got to indulge in a little First Couple Nick-and-Nora (look it up) banter about whether Michelle should run for office. Barack indicated she wasn’t temperamentally suited for the job, and, uh, Michelle agreed she’s not patient.
The president got to ruminate about what he’d do after his term, saying he’d like to work with young people. He talked guardedly about the murder of the US ambassador in Libya, walking right up to the edge of calling it a pre-planned terrorist attack.
Obama’s campaign team was probably pretty happy with the whole thing.
Second, we think the Netanyahu meeting is a separate issue. Obama did not turn that down due to time pressure. He did not want to do it for policy reasons. Now, one can argue about that – Romney says Obama is snubbing one of our most important allies – but “The View” really has little to do with that dispute.
As to meeting other leaders, Obama’s missing a chance to develop deeper personal relationships. An in-depth story in today’s New York Times notes that’s something Obama lacks in the Middle East in particular.
So yes, that may be a negative. But if you’re Obama, you may be thinking that the election is in six weeks, and if you lose, it doesn’t matter if your ties to the Saudi royal family are on the upswing.
Thus Obama is spending only 24 hours in the Big Apple. He spent Monday night at a UN reception where many other world leaders were present, noted White House spokesman Jay Carney. Tuesday he gave the traditional high-profile UN opening address by a US president.
“It’s a real moment for the US to assert its values and its leadership role,” Carney said Monday at a press briefing.
So what's the president doing instead of hanging around New York? On Wednesday, he heads out (surprise!) on the campaign trail. He’ll be going to Ohio, the most important of the battleground states in the 2012 election.
Don’t look now, but President George W. Bush is making a comeback of sorts – in the service of two Democratic candidates for the Senate who are emphasizing bipartisanship.
“As governor, I worked with the Bush administration to build Rail-To-Dulles,” Kaine says of a long-awaited public transit line to the busy northern Virginia airport as a picture of Mr. Bush and Kaine flashes on screen.
Then, moving to an image of Kaine and the current president, he continues, “and with the Obama administration to stop an aircraft carrier from moving out of Virginia.”
Richard Carmona, the Democratic challenger for an open Senate seat in Arizona, has not one but two pictures with the second President Bush on his “Republicans for Carmona” Web page. Therein, Mr. Carmona touts being nominated for his tenure as US surgeon general by Bush back in 2002. (He was confirmed unanimously by the Senate.)
Carmona, like Kaine, isn’t afraid to deviate from the party line – in one spot, Carmona says both parties have helped foul up the nation’s health-care system.
Both candidates are casting the 43rd president for clear reasons. In Virginia, Kaine has repeatedly contrasted his pragmatic approach with what he sees as the more bruising style of his opponent, Mr. Allen.
In Arizona, Carmona is fighting an uphill battle against the state’s GOP tilt and a savvy opponent in Rep. Jeff Flake and will likely need more than a few voters who vote for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney to also cast their lots with him.
What is striking, however, is that the 43rd president of the United States is invisible to Mr. Romney’s presidential run, nor does he get a whiff of a mention in campaign ads for incumbent Republicans scrambling to distance themselves from a toxic Washington.
When Bush does show up in ads in those races, it’s usually for Democrats, but for reasons very much at odds with those of Kaine and Carmona. Instead of stressing bipartisanship, the ads trash Republicans for unpopular wars or the “failed policies of the past.”
The presidencies of both Bush presidents (41 and 43) were all but absent from the Republican National Convention, too, save for a video montage shown well out of prime time.
By drafting Bush 43 into their political service, both Carmona and Kaine are trying to back up a sentiment Kaine articulates clearly at the end of his ad: “I approve this message because Washington needs more partners and fewer partisans.”
Done in the style of a public service announcement from a good-government group, the skit starts with “This election will determine the future of our country, and this election will be determined by the Undecided Voter” on-screen.
Then “Catherine” appears in an office setting, saying “some of us are just a little harder to please. We’re not impressed by political spin or 30-second sound bites. Before you get our vote, you’re going to have to answer some questions.”
Cue the questions.
“Dave,” from his kitchen: “When is the election? When do we have to decide?”
“Andrea,” on an outdoor path: “What are the names of the two people running? And be specific.”
“Jonathan,” a hipster in front of a stoop: “Who is the president right now? Is he or she running?”
And so forth. You can see where “SNL” is going here. The questions get more outlandish, ending with a student working on his computer asking the camera, “where is my power cord”?
OK, we’ll bite. Are undecided voters really this clueless?
Well, not THAT clueless. It is unlikely that many of them wonder what oil is used for, as one character does in the skit. But the fact is that another term political pros use for determinedly undecided voters is “low-information voters”. (SNL gets to that too.) Most of them do not follow politics at all closely and have little to go on to make their electoral decision, as hard as that may be for news junkies to understand.
A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll took a deeper look at the undecided voters in three battleground states, for instance, and concluded that “these are voters who simply aren’t paying attention.” One third did not feel they knew enough to give President Obama a job rating, for instance.
Sixty percent of self-described undecided voters could not identify Speaker John Boehner as a member of the House of Representatives, according to a YouGov poll done for the Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project.
Undecided voters are less partisan, less engaged, and only now starting to make up their minds for the 2012 vote, GOP pollster Whit Ayers said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg told CNN’s Candy Crowley these voters may not even make it to the polls as they focus on other parts of their lives.
“They’re taking care of their kids, they’re working,” said Greenberg.
Right now the undecided share of the national vote is running at between five and seven percent, depending on the poll. Interestingly, that share may remain fairly constant.
Last December, the Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project found that six percent of the electorate was undecided in a contest between Mr. Obama and (then potential) GOP nominee Mitt Romney. That’s about the same percentage that’s unsure of voting preference today.
But the six percent from recent polls and the six percent from last December are in fact different people – or at least, voters move in and out of the undecided category more often than many pollsters might assume, according to Lynn Vavreck, an associate professor of political science at UCLA and a co-principal investigator of the Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project.
By the beginning of September, about half of the voters who last December had proclaimed themselves undecided had moved to choose a candidate, wrote Vavreck in a post on the New York Times Campaign Stop blog. Of these, slightly more chose Obama than Romney.
Their choices seem to have been driven by their own party identification. “Even though undecided voters tend to be weaker partisans than those who make up their minds very early, party is still a potent force for them,” wrote Vavreck.
At the same time, about three to four percent of voters who said they’d made their choice abandoned it over the months, and moved into the undecided camp, according to interviews conducted by the Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project. That has kept the undecided category constant at six percent of total voters.
President Obama and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney both appeared on CBS's “60 Minutes” Sunday night. The interviews were taped separately, so the two men didn’t go at each other directly. But the juxtaposition made the whole thing seem like a predebate prior to the first official presidential debate on Oct. 3.
So how did they do? What were the most important statements?
First off, we’re not going to say either guy won or lost. Partisans from each side are pointing to quotes from the other and screaming “wipeout,” but we just don’t see it that way. Both Messrs. Obama and Romney tried to give detailed answers to tough questions, including follow-ups. If you’re still an undecided voter, you should watch the whole program. Might be a good basis for helping you make up your mind.
This said, the Obama answers that appear to have made the most news dealt particularly with foreign policy. Asked about pressure from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the United States to set a red line beyond which Iran can’t go with its nuclear program, Obama said such outside comments are just “noise.”
“When it comes to our national-security decisions, any pressure that I feel is simply to do what’s right for the American people. And I am going to block out any noise that’s out there,” Obama said, in the full quote.
Reporter Steve Kroft further pressed Obama on whether such events as the killing of the US ambassador to Libya have caused him to rethink his support for Middle Eastern governments that came to power as a result of the Arab Spring.
“The question presumes that somehow we could have stopped this wave of change. I think it was absolutely the right thing for us to do to align ourselves with democracy.... But I was pretty certain and continue to be pretty certain that there are going to be bumps in the road,” said Obama.
Conservatives have pushed back hard on these comments, saying that describing the murder of Americans as “bumps in the road” is insensitive and that Israel is a close ally of the US, not a source of “noise.”
For his part, Romney appeared to have trouble with this question from reporter Scott Pelley: “Does the government have a responsibility to provide health care to the 50 million Americans who don’t have it today?”
Romney said the US does currently provide such care, in the form of free emergency-room care. “If someone has a heart attack, they don’t sit in their apartment and die. We pick them up in an ambulance and take them to the hospital and give them care,” said Romney.
Different states have different ways of handling this, said Romney, as some use clinics and some use emergency rooms. But liberals were quick to assert that this way of handling health care for the uninsured is expensive, inefficient, ineffective, and as burdensome to taxpayers as any national government program.
“Right, if you lack health insurance, you can’t receive regular medical treatment, but if your illness develops to the point where you are carted off to the emergency room, you will get treatment, though you will also get a bill that may ruin you financially,” wrote Jonathan Chait on Monday on his Daily Intel blog at New York Magazine.
In addition, Romney declined to provide any further details about his proposed tax plan, including which deductions he would get rid of to enable the federal government to lower tax rates without losing tax revenue.
When Mr. Pelley noted that the “devil is in the details” on tax policy, Romney seemed to agree that presenting his proposals as he does sugarcoats the hard choices involved. Though perhaps that’s not what he meant to do.
“The devil’s in the details,” Romney replied. “The angel is in the policy, which is creating more jobs.”
There was other stuff to chew over: Obama admitted some of his political ads go too far, millionaire Romney defended his 14 percent federal tax rate as fair, and so on. Again, the whole interview, including the extra bits posted online, is one of the best side-by-side guides to the candidate we’ve seen yet. If there was a winner, it’s “60 Minutes” for showing once again what happens when skilled and prepared reporters conduct candidate interviews.
Maybe it’s a maternal thing. But we couldn’t help but sympathize somewhat when we heard Ann Romney’s latest attempt to defend her husband from his Republican critics, who have been vacillating between morose and merciless.
Yes, we know, Mitt isn’t Ann’s son. But there was something about the way she snapped “Stop it” that called to mind nothing so much as a mom who’s “had it up to here” with the snide comments being lobbed from the backseat.
In an interview with Radio Iowa Thursday, Mrs. Romney tried to lay down the law:
“Stop it. This is hard. You want to try it? Get in the ring. This is hard and, you know, it’s an important thing that we’re doing right now, and it’s an important election, and it is time for all Americans to realize how significant this election is and how lucky we are to have someone with Mitt’s qualifications and experience and know-how to be able to have the opportunity to run this country.”
The trouble with these comments, of course, is that they probably will give more fodder to critics who see Ann Romney as a clueless elitist. Telling Americans they just need to realize how “lucky” they are that someone as talented as her husband is willing to be their leader sounds sort of like when she told reporters that she and her husband had released “all you people need to know” when it came to their taxes. It’s got more than a whiff of noblesse oblige.
Still, as we said, it’s hard not to sympathize. For one thing, nearly everyone agrees that presidential campaigns are probably hardest on the spouses. Their schedule is nearly as brutal, but they aren’t necessarily as practiced in keeping on message. (Remember an irritated Teresa Heinz Kerry, Sen. John Kerry's wife, telling a reporter to “shove it?”)
Understandably, they also tend to take all the criticism more personally – particularly when it comes from would-be allies.
During the GOP primary campaign, Anita Perry, wife of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, got teary at an event with voters and confessed that it had been “a rough month,” after her husband had come under fire for some poor debate performances (and this was before the infamous “oops” moment). "We are being brutalized by our opponents, and our own party," she said.
What’s most interesting about Mrs. Romney’s comments is that – besides revealing just how difficult the past few weeks have been for the Romney family – she also may have inadvertently hit on the biggest factor behind her husband’s current predicament: He was never the party’s first choice, but no one else wanted to “get in the ring.”
It’s no secret that Mitt Romney has never been beloved by conservatives. The GOP nominated him because, to be blunt, he was all they had – the best (by far) of a weak field. And for all the sniping now about how “if Republicans can’t win against an incumbent as weak as President Obama, with an economy as weak as this” – well, it’s worth remembering that a whole line of potential A-list candidates, from Jeb Bush to Chris Christie to Marco Rubio, took a look at these same conditions and decided to pass.
So, Republicans can bemoan Romney’s “incompetent” campaign and his “tin-eared” candidacy. And we’re not saying they’re wrong. But on some level, his wife is also right: Running for president is hard. And Romney was willing to take a shot, when other party leaders were not.
There are a bunch of new battleground state polls in the news Friday morning, and at first glance they don’t look good for Mitt Romney.
The NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist Poll surveyed Wisconsin, Colorado, and Iowa for instance, and found President Obama ahead among likely voters in all three. And the leads aren’t margin-of-error stuff – Mr. Obama’s up by 5 points in Wisconsin, 5 points in Colorado, and 8 points in the Hawkeye State.
In Nevada, Obama’s up by 3 points, 49 to 46 percent, according to a recent CNN/ORC International survey. And in Michigan the margin is 9 points, 39 to 30 percent. (Thirty percent of likely voters in Mr. Romney’s home state remain undecided though, so there’s still room for that to change.)
At second glance these results still don’t look good for Romney. It’s not just the margins in these particular surveys – it’s the trend in key swing states as well. There have been 21 polls conducted in the 10 most important battleground states since the end of the Democratic convention, notes New York Times polling analyst Nate Silver Friday, and Obama has led all.
“On average, he has held a six-point lead in these surveys, and he has had close to 50 percent of the vote in them,” writes Mr. Silver on his FiveThirtyEight blog.
But here’s what we find interesting – national polls currently show a closer race. The RealClearPolitics rolling average of major polls has Obama up by only 3.5 points, 48.4 to 44.9. And one of the largest, most professional surveys included in this average, Gallup’s daily tracking poll, on Thursday had Obama and Romney tied at 47 to 47 percent.
Since when have battleground states been less of a battleground than the nation as a whole?
We’ll examine the two possibilities:
THE STATE POLLS ARE RIGHT. It’s possible that the state polls are out in front and the national surveys just haven’t caught up to them yet. As Silver points out, the state surveys mentioned have generally been good ones that call cell phone numbers as well as landlines. RCP’s rolling average includes some polls conducted some time ago; most of the state polls are new, and may better reflect the political implications of recent events such as the conventions, attacks on US interests in the Middle East, and release of the secret video of Romney speaking at a fundraiser.
It’s also possible the state polls show the effects of the presidential campaigns. Both the Obama and Romney teams focus their money, time, and ads on battleground states, to the exclusion of others. If one side’s effort is more effective than that of the other, it might show disproportionate results in key places.
THE NATIONAL POLLS ARE RIGHT. But look, you can’t just dismiss the full-USA surveys. They’re larger and tend to be perhaps more professionally run. “Larger” in this sense also can mean a larger pool of respondents, which aids accuracy. That might be the reason why Gallup, for instance, shows a different result.
Of course, Romney’s behind in national surveys, too. He just has a smaller margin to make up. His real problem is that it’s possible to win the national vote and lose the election. (Remember 2000?) The real path to victory is through the battlegrounds, where candidates try to put together state-by-state victories that lead them to the magical number of 270 electoral votes.
And time is ticking by. North Carolina has mailed out absentee ballots. Early voting starts Friday in South Dakota and Idaho. The election is in 46 days. Romney announced his choice of Rep. Paul Ryan as running mate 41 days ago. As a ticket, their campaign is now about half-run.
IN PICTURES: On the campaign trail with Romney and Ryan
To what extent do US federal taxes redistribute wealth? That’s a question that comes up because “redistribution” is a hot word in American politics at the moment. Republicans in recent days have been brandishing a newly released 1998 tape on which then-state Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois endorses the concept of government redistributing wealth from one group to another.
“I actually believe in redistribution, at least at a certain level, to make sure that everybody’s got a shot,” says Mr. Obama on the 14-year old recording.
Yes, the GOP is pushing this to counter that video of Mitt Romney saying that 47 percent of Americans believe they are “victims” entitled to government aid. Yes, as our colleague Liz Marlantes notes, Mr. Romney supports some level of redistribution himself – unless he wants to end Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and other transfer programs, as well as progressive taxation.
Still, we thought we’d take a look at the tax system itself to see what level of redistribution it contains as a means of beginning to explore how this concept works in the American political system.
According to CBO, in 2009 the lowest quintile (20 percent) of US households accounted for 5.1 percent of the collective before-tax income. The middle quintile had 14.7 percent of before-tax earnings. For the top quintile, the figure was 50.8 percent.
That’s right – the top 20 percent of earners receive about 51 percent of the cash that’s flowing into US households.
Now let’s look at the share of total federal taxes these same groups paid out. The lowest quintile paid 0.3 percent of this tax burden. The middle quintile paid 9.4 percent. The top quintile paid 67.9 percent, according to CBO.
As you see, the share of US taxes owed by the lowest and middle quintiles is less than their corresponding share of national income. For the top 20 percent, the share of taxes is higher than their share of income.
This state of affairs is due to the fact that the US tax code is progressive. It taxes higher incomes at higher rates. Some of this money is then redistributed to lower-income households in the form of transfer payments: Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance payments, and so on.
So how has this gap changed over the years? Well, it bounces around a bit due to tax code changes and the state of the national economy. Perhaps we should take a look at figures from 1998 – the year Obama mentioned the “r” word on the new tape.
In 1998, the lowest quintile of households earned 4.9 percent of the nation’s income, and paid 1.4 percent of the federal tax burden. The middle quintile earned 14.1 percent of the cash, and paid 10.5 percent of the federal taxes. The highest quintile got 52.1 percent of the income and paid 64.1 percent of the taxes.
We’ll save you some eyestrain here – the distribution is about the same.
“Differences between before- and after-tax inequality are little changed since the mid-1990s,” concluded CBO analysts Ed Harris and Frank Sammartino in an August presentation to a National Bureau of Economic Research conference.
In light of that, why is “redistribution” a controversial political word? Well, to oversimplify, many Democrats are focused on the rapid income gains of the very top earners – the 1 percent – and the amount of money they’ve saved as a result of the Bush-era tax cuts. Some conservative Republicans argue that progressivity is wrong, and that a flat tax, in which every income is taxed at the same rate, would be a fairer way of administering the federal system.