Expert Commentary

“Moochers” and “makers” in the voting booth

2014 study by Dartmouth on how voters’ perceptions of themselves as beneficiaries of federal spending can affect their subsequent choice of presidential candidates.

In September 2012, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney spoke at a Florida fundraiser and a recording was subsequently leaked to the media. To say the least, his comments attracted considerable attention: “There are 47% of the people who will vote for the president no matter what,” Romney is heard saying. “All right, there are 47% 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’s an entitlement…. 47% of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect.”

Romney derived the information from a Tax Policy Center analysis (their figure was 46%, however). The analysis found that among households paying no income tax, half had no liability because they earned very low incomes or received tax credits, mainly related to their status as elderly taxpayers, low-income parents or low-income workers. Even if people don’t pay income taxes, however, they can make payroll contributions to Social Security and Medicare. When these are included, the Tax Policy Center found that only 28% of households paid no federal taxes for 2011. It is also important to note that many households with no tax liability one year go on to pay taxes in later years. For example, a 2012 study of the Earned Income Tax Credit, which provides payments to low-wage workers after they file taxes, found a majority of beneficiaries received the credit for between one and two years over a 17-year period.

A 2014 study published in Public Opinion Quarterly, “Moochers and Makers in the Voting Booth: Who Benefits from Federal Spending and How Did They Vote in the 2012 Presidential Election?” looks at people’s self-perceptions as “moochers” (net beneficiaries of federal spending) versus “makers” (net contributors of federal tax dollars) and their voting behavior. Dean Lacy, a professor of government at Dartmouth College, sought to test a version of Romney’s hypothesis — that people believing they benefit from federal programs in excess of their tax payments were more likely to vote for Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election.

Using data from a survey of about 1,000 voters conducted around the time of the election, Lacy gathered demographic information as well as voters’ presidential candidate selections. The survey also included a question about whether each voter considered him or herself a net beneficiary of federal spending, net contributor to federal spending, or a budget-neutral taxpayer. Participants were asked to consider all forms of federal spending, including public benefit programs, government employment and compensation for military service.

The study’s findings include:

  • Among those who participated in the survey, 18% believed that they were net beneficiaries of federal spending, 58% believed they were net contributors, and the remaining 24% believed that their benefits equaled their tax contributions.
  • Factors that increased the likelihood of believing that one was a net beneficiary of federal spending included being a senior citizen, earning a low income, having many children and having less than full-time employment.
  • Voters identifying as Democrats were more likely to believe they were net beneficiaries of federal spending compared to independents or Republicans. Additionally, white voters were less likely to believe they benefit from federal spending compared to voters of color.
  • Although the survey question explicitly mentioned military employment as a federal benefit, military service was not a predictor of believing that one was a net beneficiary of federal spending.
  • Among participants who believed they were net beneficiaries of federal spending, 54.5% reported voting for Obama and 45.5% voted for Romney.
  • Among those who believed they were net contributors, 52% voted for Romney and 48% voted for Obama.
  • The majority of those who believed that their benefits and contributions were equivalent, 59.6%, voted for Obama. The remainder, 40.4%, voted for Romney. This was an unexpected result, as “voters who believe they are budget neutral were the most Democratic-leaning in the electorate.”

“For the less than one-quarter of American voters age 65 and over, a partisan divide does appear between net contributors and net beneficiaries,” Lacy concludes. “But for the remaining 77.5% 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.” Consequently, “the partisan divide on perceptions of who benefits from federal spending may be large in Congress and among political elites, but it is much smaller among American voters. The perception of moochers voting Democratic and makers voting Republican is at most a quarter-truth.”

Related research: A 2012 paper by Cornell University, “Who Says They Have Ever Used a Government Social Program? The Role of Policy Visibility,” analyzes data from a nationally representative sample of 1,000 Americans about their views on government programs; the study compares these views to respondents’ actual use of specific programs over their lifetimes. Among the 21 federal social programs the survey asked about, respondents on average had taken advantage of 4.47 programs. When asked whether they had “ever used a government social program,” however, the majority responded that they had not. Among those who said “no,” the average number of government programs they had actually used was 3.8.

Keywords: taxation, polarization, government aid, campaign issue

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