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Sorting out the truth in politics

PolitiFact: People who pay no income tax support Barack Obama, Mitt Romney claims

Speaking at a Boca Raton fundraiser a few months ago, Mitt Romney said supporters of President Barack Obama are "dependent on government," "believe that they are victims" and "believe the government has a responsibility to care for them."

Their dependence on government is significant, Romney told the group, because Obama "starts out with 48, 49 percent … 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."

Romney is roughly correct about the overall percentage of American who pay no income tax, but is he right that Obama supporters "pay no income tax"? We dug into the numbers to see.

Who pays taxes

Romney's figure is close to one from the Urban Institute-Brookings Institution Tax Policy Center, which found that 46 percent of tax filers pay no income tax, versus about 54 percent of tax filers that did have some federal income tax liability. Generally speaking, the groups most likely to have no tax liability are the elderly and the poor.

Anti-tax Republicans tend to focus on the federal income tax burden because it helps make their case that the federal income tax burden falls disproportionately on the wealthy. Because there is a solid basis for this number, we've rated it True in the past — at least when it is described correctly.

That qualifier is important. While the 46 percent figure refers to federal income tax, federal income tax is not the only tax that Americans pay. It's not even the only federal tax people pay. Of those who paid no income tax, 28 percent will at least pay federal payroll taxes, which funds Social Security and Medicare and is deducted from every working American's paycheck. Most of the rest are the poor and elderly.

So, Romney would have been right if he said about 47 percent of all Americans don't pay federal income taxes. But he went further, arguing that those 47 percent of Americans who don't pay federal income taxes are essentially all Obama supporters. And the facts don't back him up.

Obama supporters

It's tricky to compare taxpaying status with presidential preferences, but there are enough data points that we can poke some significant holes in Romney's argument.

Income levels. We compared Tax Policy Center data with a recent CBS News-New York Times poll.

Among households with below $50,000 in income, 68 percent owed no federal income taxes, according to the Tax Policy Center. The poll showed Obama led in this group, 58 percent to 37 percent.

For households between $50,000 and $100,000, 11 percent paid no federal income taxes. Romney led in this group, 50 percent to 47 percent.

And for households above $100,000, 2 percent owed no federal income taxes. Romney led in this category, 57 percent to 41 percent

So there's a modest correlation between the likelihood of not paying income taxes and the likelihood of supporting Obama. But Romney vastly overstates the link. Obama has substantial support among households $100,000 and up, and virtually all of them pay income taxes.

Put another way, Obama is expected to win millions of votes from people who do pay federal income taxes, and Romney is expected to win millions of votes from people who do not pay federal income taxes.

Senior citizens. Romney gets strong support from seniors. He led in the CBS-New York Times poll by a 53 percent to 38 percent margin, and a CNN and Opinion Research Corp. poll from around the same time had Romney leading among senior by a 53 percent to 45 percent margin.

Yet being a senior is one of the biggest reasons an American would pay no federal income taxes. Among those who saw tax breaks wipe out their income-tax liability, nearly half benefited from a tax break targeted at senior citizens.

State by state data. The Tax Foundation has found some state-by-state patterns that are problematic for Romney's claim.

The foundation tallied the states that had the highest percentages of non-income-tax-paying residents. The 10 states with the highest rates of non-tax-payers are mostly ones that Romney has in the bag — Texas, Idaho, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. And several states with the lowest rates are solidly in Obama's camp, including Minnesota, Maryland and Massachusetts.

Combined, that's enough in our minds to debunk this claim. We rate it False.

This item has been edited for print. Read the full story at PolitiFact.com.

The statement

The "48, 49 percent" that supports President Barack Obama are "people who pay no income tax."

Mitt Romney, in a secretly recorded speech at a Florida fundraiser

The ruling

PolitiFact ruling: False

Polls and income tax data don't back this up. Obama gets substantial support from people earning more than $50,000 — and 90 percent of them, or more, do pay taxes. And Romney gets lots of support from seniors, many of whom have no income tax liability. We rate the claim False.

PolitiFact: People who pay no income tax support Barack Obama, Mitt Romney claims 09/18/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 18, 2012 6:18pm]
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