Mitt Romney: “There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what … Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax.”
Many mainstream news accounts, including fact checks, based interpretations on questionable assumptions about what Mitt Romney was saying during a private talk at a fundraising event. Fact checkers ended up fact checking a statement that Romney did not say and a sentiment Romney probably did not intend.
The progressive-oriented magazine Mother Jones pushed the story stemming from comments Romney made in private during a fundraiser in Florida. Many of the Romney quotations in the subsequent reporting and fact checks are incomplete. Mother Jones has posted a transcript of the recording. Here’s the relevant portion:
Mitt Romney: “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. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect. And he’ll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean that’s what they sell every four years. 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. What I have to do is convince the 5 to 10 percent in the center that are independents that are thoughtful, that look at voting one way or the other depending upon in some cases emotion, whether they like the guy or not, what it looks like. I mean, when you ask those people…we do all these polls—I find it amazing—we poll all these people, see where you stand on the polls, but 45 percent of the people will go with a Republican, and 48 or 4 …”
The recording features a gap as Romney moves to explain the poll numbers.
Mother Jones has posted the full video, not counting the gap, on YouTube. Here’s the first part:
Various fact checkers have reasonably concluded that 46 percent of Americans pay no net federal income tax. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, associated with the center-left Brookings Institution think-tank, affirms that figure.
Analyzing the Rhetoric
Mainstream fact checkers went awry on this issue by reporting as fact that Romney said Obama voters do not pay federal taxes. PolitiFact served up an example of this type of error:
Romney … claimed that the 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay federal income taxes are strong Obama supporters because they are so dependent on government benefits that Obama freely provides.
In fact, Romney never specifically says, at least in the available portion of the recording, that the 47 percent of Americans who firmly support President Obama is the same 47 percent that does not pay net federal income taxes. He does use the same number in describing the two groups, however, which may represent either a conflation of the two groups or else a deliberate approximation. Given that Romney was speaking extemporaneously, the fact checker relegated to checking discrete claims should not assume Romney was saying that all 47 percent he said did not pay net federal income taxes would also vote for Mr. Obama. That is a natural interpretation given that Romney used the same figure for both groups. But the natural interpretation is not necessarily the accurate interpretation. The fact that Romney did refer separately to a “huge number” of committed voters in the “48, 49” percent range lends credence to the idea Romney talked of two separate but overlapping groups.
Fact checkers tend to ignore the principle of charitable interpretation. That principle tends to apply when the phrasing of a statement is unclear and also when a statement seems far-fetched.
As pointed out above, Romney makes no specific claim that the 47 percent of persons not paying net income tax is the same is the exact same group on whom Mr. Obama can count for votes. Romney’s statement qualifies for charitable interpretation on the basis of ambiguity.
Any claim that all persons not paying net federal income taxes will vote for Obama is very hard to believe on its face. Romney’s statement therefore qualifies for charitable interpretation by both criteria.
Let’s also note that the fact checker should not apply the principle of charitable interpretation without informing the audience. Charitable interpretation does not serve as a perfect guide. Rather, it is an interpretive tool that helps achieve the most reasonable understanding of a communication that might be taken more than one way. The uncharitable interpretation may turn out as the correct interpretation.
In this case, it isn’t much of a leap at all to view Romney’s statement as referring to two separate but overlapping groups. A substantial percentage of voters will come from the 47 percent who pay no net federal income tax, and it’s reasonable for Romney to think that group is less persuaded by economic proposals that include tax cuts. Therefore, that’s probably what Romney was trying to communicate despite the confusion he created by using the 47 percent figure in referring to both groups.
The evidence that Romney said all “voters who support Barack Obama are ‘people who pay no income tax'” rests on inference. Clearly some voters who support Mr. Obama pay no net income tax. One must indulge in inference to claim Romney said much more than that.
The ordinarily trusted source “The Atlantic” made a notable blunder by inaccurately describing a quotation containing an ellipsis as the full quotation of Romney:
*Here’s the full quote: “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 the 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…These are people who pay no income tax.”
It’s a strange error.
Marr, Chuck and Chye-Ching Huang. “Misconceptions and Realities About Who Pays Taxes.” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 17 Sept, 2012. Web. 27 Sept. 2012.
Jacobson, Louis. “Mitt Romney says voters who support Barack Obama are ‘people who pay no income tax.’” PolitiFact, 18 Sept. 2012. Web. 27 Sept. 2012.
Thompson, Derek. “The 47%: Who They Are, Where They Live, How They Vote, and Why They Matter.” The Atlantic, 18 Sept. 2012. Web. 27 Sept 2012.
Farley, Robert. “Dependency and Romney’s 47 Percenters.” FactCheck.org. FactCheck.org, 18 Sept. 2012. Web. 16 Oct. 2012.