Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Big 2012 Electoral Map - Condition Critical for Mitt Romney?, What's the Deal with the 47% Anyway?

Is the Romney Campaign on Life Support?
Days Until The Election: 44
Projected Popular Vote Total: Obama +1.6% (down 1.7% from last week)
Projected Electoral Vote Total: Obama 347, Romney 191 (Obama +15 from last week)
Current Betting Odds: Obama 70%, Romney 30% (Obama +4% from last week)

On most fronts, it was a pretty bad week for Mitt Romney.  The media focus continued to be on his 47% comment (more on that later) which largely blunted his attempt to make the message about the state of the US economy.

He lost yet another state on our electoral map, with North Carolina moving into the Obama column and a slew of new polls in Ohio suggest that his opportunity to win that state is rapidly slipping away.  As things stand today, Romney would need every single one of the the states I have bucketed as "lean Obama" in order to eek out a 272-266 Electoral college victory and running the table in North Carolina, New Hampshire, Florida, Colorado, Iowa, Nevada AND Virginia seems like a daunting task.

The betting odds on him winning slipped again to a new low in the campaign, with the betting markets projecting only a 30% probability of a Romney victory, down from 34% last week.

There is one, very important slice of good news for Mitt Romney amid all the bad news however, and that lies in the two large Presidential tracking polls.  As I noted before, Gallup and Rasmussen are the two largest-sample national tracking polls being conducted throughout the race (many other tracking polls will be added during the month of October if history holds), with the former being a 7-day tracking average and the later being a 3-day tracking average.  The good news for Romney is that in both polls, the President's bump from the convention has faded and both show the race a dead heat, with Gallup at 47-47 and Rasmussen at 46-46. 

How to process the tracking poll data in light of other national polls (the National Journal just released a similarly timed poll that shows Obama up by a 50-43% margin and, in fact, every other poll released during the month of September showed the President with a lead, although the margin varied between 1% and 8%) is a tricky question.  I've been at this for a few election cycles now and have found it incredibly hard to project a "best poll" for the national vote.  In 2000, the Investor's Business Daily poll had the most accurate results.  In 2004, it was the Battleground poll.  In 2008, the CNN / Opinion Research poll called it the most closely.  For perspective, these two particular tracking polls had Obama at +7% (Rasmussen) and +11% (Gallup) versus a +7.3% actual result.

Since nobody ever knows which poll will get it exactly right, my process of aggregation and multi-factor averaging has produced better results than individual polls and as such, my statistical approach gives no more or less weight to these polls than other similarly-sampled polls would have.  But it is interesting.

Looking at the map, one might naturally wonder why the President is campaigning in Wisconsin this weekend.  The recent polls don't make it look like Wisconsin is truly up for grabs at this stage even with Paul Ryan on the GOP ticket, although it did look that way a couple of weeks ago.  I believe that the answer may be that the President is trying to quickly narrow the field.  If he can lock down his support in the mid-west and put Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania out of reach (the Romney camp seems to have largely abandoned Pennsylvania already), then he lock Romney's path to victory down to one - sweeping all the close states.  Mitt Romney is in Colorado this weekend, obviously working those light blue states, then heads to Ohio and Virginia.

With all that said, here is my assessment of the state of the race.  Mitt Romney is running out of time, but is not yet completely out.  Each day that goes by hurts his chance of winning.  That is what is happening with the betting odds - it is not so much that the race has swung to Obama, in fact the national numbers and the electoral college look a lot like they looked a month ago, it is that his time to shift the natural course of the campaign is dwindling.  Each news cycle where he is not making an impact is hurting him at this point.

He needs a breakthrough performance in the first debate, but the likely outcome is something akin to a draw.  Both candidates will likely be very well prepped and both are pretty lucid speakers when they are on-script, so if I had to guess, I'd guess that it won't move the needle that much.  But it is 90 minutes for Romney to try to roll the dice and move the needle.

The 47%
Quite a lot of controversy has surrounded the release of video that showed Mitt Romney speaking of the 47% who don't pay taxes.

Out of fairness, first let me give you the entire Romney quote, in context:
"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. My job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."

Who exactly Romney is referring to when he talks about the "47%" is not 100% clear to me from the quote.  47% is approximately the percentage of people who don't pay income tax, as he mentions late in the quote and perhaps the most reasonable interpretation of the quote is to say that he is referring to those people.  He could also be referring to people who receive some form of government assistance.  If you include Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps, Welfare, Pell Grants and every other federal assistance program, the 47% is pretty close to the percentage of people who get something from the government.

I have a couple of problems with his statement.  First, the notion that all the people who pay no taxes or receive government benefits are all going to vote for the President is absurd.  Mitt Romney is leading among senior citizens, who are the largest group that don't pay income taxes and receive government benefits, largely because many of them are retired and living off of Social Security and Medicare.  Enlisted members of the military are also polling for Romney and they are one of the largest recipients of Food Stamps, which is a national disgrace that we should discuss at a later date.  Also, working poor white voters overwhelmingly favor Romney.  More than 60% of the voters in West Virginia, for instance, pay no federal income tax, and Romney leads West Virginia by almost 20% in my numbers, an impossibility if the 60% all voted for Obama.  So the notion that the "47%" of non tax-paying, government benefit-receiving people are all lined up for Obama is on-face absurd.

Secondly, I think the important question is WHY they don't pay federal taxes and WHY they receive benefits.  Mitt Romney has said of his own taxes "I pay what is legally required and not a penny more" and I happen to agree with him - it's an unreasonable expectation that people should send checks to the government that are not required.  The 47% pay no federal income taxes because they are not REQUIRED to because largely of three things.  The first is the Earned Income Tax Credit, a concept pioneered by populist conservative Jack Kemp to encourage poor people to work rather than receive welfare by creating the economic incentive of subsidizing their income if they did.  The second is the expanded Child Tax Credit, an idea implemented by Bill Clinton, but also championed by Newt Gingrich and extended by George W. Bush.  The third is the Bush tax cuts, which slashed all rates and moved up the amount of the first dollar of income taxed.  So, largely, those who are NOT senior citizens (who, I guess we can blame FDR and LBJ for creating Social Security and Medicare for their not working and paying taxes) are not doing so because of conservative policies.

Thirdly, not paying income taxes or receiving some form of federal benefit is a poor yardstick for being a freeloader.  Most of the working poor who do not pay taxes still pay payroll taxes (Social Security, Medicare, etc.), federal gas taxes (who doesn't pay gas taxes!), federal alcohol and tobacco taxes and a whole bevy of state and local taxes (sales taxes, property taxes, etc.)  The yardstick of paying federal income taxes being equated to being a contributing member of society would mean that everyone who lived in the country before 1913 was a freeloader, since the federal government couldn't even impose one until the ratification of the 16th amendment.

As for receiving a federal benefit, that is also a very poor benchmark.  Most recipients of Social Security and Medicare, who paid into the system their whole lives and are no receiving their legally promised benefits, don't consider themselves freeloaders.  I'm sure Mitt doesn't consider his father, who was on welfare in his early adulthood, but went on to be a very successful businessman and politician, a freeloader.  I think most of you with kids in college that received Pell Grants to be freeloaders.  Three years ago, I took advantage of a tax rebate to put more energy-efficient windows in my house, I don't consider myself a freeloader.

Lost in all of this though is the fact that I DO agree with Mitt that the income tax system is not healthy and it is probably not a great idea as a matter of policy to have 47% of people pay no federal income tax.  But what exactly is he proposing that would solve it?  End the Bush tax cuts?  He's against it (as is President Obama for the income-brackets we are discussing.)  Repeal the Child Tax credit?  Both he and the President are opposed.  End the Earned Income Tax Credit?  Again, both candidates are against doing so.

The solution would be to create a graduated system with less deductions.  Romney has proposed to do so but won't say which deductions he would eliminate, other than that he wouldn't eliminate the two largest ones - the mortgage interest deduction and the charitable contribution deduction.

Maybe Mitt Romney, faced with the long odds he has now, will get serious about putting forward a more serious policy proposal on taxation.  That would be a great thing for the national dialogue.  But I'm not holding my breathe. 

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