When he made his infamous "47 percent" remark, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney made a predictable assumption: People getting a lot of assistance from the government must be Democrats.
That might have been true four years ago, but fresh data suggests that Romney's living in the past. Of the voters who have migrated from the Democratic to the Republican party over the last few years, most have been people with incomes below $75,000. And the biggest gains have come among less-educated Americans. So the "47 percent" Romney was referring to includes a surprising number of Republicans who used to be Democrats—precisely the types of voters Romney will need if he's going to defeat President Obama.
The controversy erupted recently when a video surfaced showing Romney at a private fundraiser saying, "There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what." Romney was referring to the 47 percent of adult Americans who don't pay income taxes for one reason or another. Then he described that 47 percent as "people 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."
Romney was correct that 47 percent of Americans don't pay federal income taxes, but as numerous press reports have since pointed out, those people aren't necessary the slackers he made them out to be. Many are retirees who paid plenty of tax during their working lives and now earn Social Security income not subject to ordinary taxes. Others are low-income workers who claim perfectly legitimate deductions that push their income below a taxable threshold. Some of the 47 percent probably are deadbeats, but it's a far lower proportion than Romney insinuated.
Romney also appears to be wrong that those 47 percent "will vote for the president no matter what." This is where Romney seems to be unaware of the changing makeup of his own party. Economist and historian Neil Howe, author of Generations and several other influential books, pointed out recently on his blog that the biggest increase in people who call themselves Republicans is among people who probably belong to the 47 percent. "Since 2008," Howe told me in an interview, "all of the Republican gains have occurred in lower income brackets. Those are the people who are hurting most under Obama."
The details come from the Pew Research Center's ongoing surveys of party identification. Between 2008 and 2012, fewer Americans identified themselves as Democrats in each of five income segments below $100,000. Some of them became Republicans—presumably Romney supporters—and some became independents, which suggests they're open to voting for Romney.
Among those earning between $30,000 and $50,000 per year, for example, 41 percent said they were Democrats in 2008. This year, it's just 35 percent. The portion saying they're Republican rose from 26 percent to 29 percent, and those claiming to be independent rose from 29 percent to 34 percent. (The portion answering "other" or "don't know" fell from 4 percent in 2008 to 2 percent this year, accounting for the other 2 percent.) On the whole, that's a meaningful loss for Democrats in an election year in which their candidate has a tough case to make for re-election.
The Democrats, meanwhile, have become a slightly more elite party since 2008. Those earning more than $100,000 who say they're Democrats ticked up from 29 percent to 30 percent. And the Republicans lost 5 percent of those earning between $100,000 and $150,000, with all of them moving to the independent column.
The shift by education is similar. Fewer college grads say they're Republican in 2012, though those leaving the party seem to have become independents rather than Democrats. But Democrats have lost adherents among those with some college and especially among those with a high school education or less. Again, some of those people became Republicans, and some independents.
Those less educated, lower-income people probably belong to the 47 percent, since they fit the profile of people who fall below federal income-tax thresholds and who receive the government benefits that Romney disdained, such as Medicaid, food stamps, and unemployment insurance. And they tend to be the ones doing worst under President Obama, since the economy these days can be punishing toward underskilled or displaced workers.
The Democratic party, meanwhile, includes an increasing number of people who have benefited from corporate bailouts and Federal Reserve policies friendly to the stock market. A recent Gallup poll, in fact, found a sizeable gap between the economic confidence of Democrats and Republicans, with Dems feeling increasingly upbeat and Republicans growing more sour.
Mitt Romney may think of Republicans as the financiers and corporate bigwigs who show up at his fundraisers, but his party includes an increasing number of people who will never fork over thousands for an audience with the candidate. Unless Romney drives them away, that is.pulse
Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.