Mitt Romney is set to release his 2011 federal tax return this afternoon, as he pledged to do earlier in his presidential campaign. The timing comes at the end of a tough week for the Republican nominee, after remarks he made at a private campaign event in May disparaged what he called the "47 percent of voters" who would support President Barack Obama no matter what were made public.
Romney's tax returns have been a point of contention throughout the presidential race, with the wealthy businessman presenting his 2010 returns and an estimate of his 2011 filing only after taking heat from GOP opponents in the primary.
Throughout his political career, Romney has had to cope with the "rich guy" image that has been attached because of his business success and the fact that his father was a governor and auto industry CEO. And his comments that he didn't need to care about the 47 percent of Obama voters—who he equated with the about 47 percent of Americans that don't pay federal income tax—merely reinforced the narrative built by Democrats that he doesn't care about the middle class.
According to the documents made public this spring, he paid a 13.9 percent rate in 2010 and would pay an estimate rate of 15.4 percent in 2011. The new information just released from the Romney campaign shows that he paid a 14.1 percent rate in 2011. The couple donated over $4 million to charity last year—about 30 percent of their income—but only claimed $2.25 million of it as charitable donations.
"The Romneys' generous charitable donations in 2011 would have significantly reduced their tax obligation for the year," wrote Bradford Malt, the trustee in charge of Romney's finances, in a memo distributed by the campaign. "The Romneys thus limited their deduction of charitable contributions to conform to the governor's statement in August, based upon the January estimate of income, that he paid at least 13 percent in income taxes in each of the last 10 years."
The Romneys are part of the Mormon church, which asks members to "tithe" at least 10 percent of their income to the church annually.
Romney's effective tax rate is much lower than most filers in his income bracket because most of his earnings come from returns on investment, known as capital gains, rather than wages.
In addition to the 2011 return, the campaign released a summary of prior filings spanning decades, something Romney had resisted doing in the past even in the face of attacks from the Obama campaign and other Democrats. He had also taken criticism for accounts revealed by his 2010 return that had been set up in the tax havens of Switzerland and the Cayman Islands.
The release may have been timed to soften the blow his remarks about the "47 percent" have had on his campaign as he competes fiercely with Obama for middle class votes. By resisting calls to be more forthcoming about his personal finances, Romney was feeding a narrative that he had something to hide—either that he was not paying any federal taxes at all during some years or that he had been employing exotic accounting acrobatics designed to reduce his tax burden in a way that most Americans do not.
It's not an accident that the Romneys are choosing to be more forthcoming about their personal finances at this critical campaign juncture, with Romney trailing in key swing states with large working-class voting blocs, such as Ohio, with just less than seven weeks left before Election Day. It's a pretty clear indication that the campaign needs to make up a trust deficit with voters, especially given Romney's strong opposition to opening his books just weeks ago.
Ann Romney said in an interview that the couple had nothing to hide, but was declining to share more information because it would merely provide more ammunition to their political rivals.
"Have you seen how we are attacked? Have you seen what's happened?" she said in an August interview with NBC. "We have been very transparent to what's legally required of us. But the more we release, the more we get attacked, the more we get questioned, the more we get pushed. And so we have done what's legally required, and there's going to be no more tax releases given."
It was actually Romney's father, George, who began the tradition of presidential candidates revealing their tax records to the public when he presented voters with 12 years' worth during his 1968 presidential bid.
Rebekah Metzler is a political writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter.