Mitt’s Misguided View of 'the 47%'

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Of all the news generated in Mitt Romney’s thought-to-be private comments from a fundraiser that surfaced Monday – and there was plenty of it – the most eye-catching element, from the perspective of Patchwork Nation, was how misguided the premise behind the comments was.

In his comments Mr. Romney not only ignored some basic facts about the way people in different kinds of places actually vote, he also seemed to fundamentally misunderstand a crucial piece of his base, according to polls: social conservatives.

Many different datasets were used to identify and differentiate Patchwork Nation’s 12 types of counties – everything from occupation to ethnicity to religious affiliation to, yes, income – and the numbers here are striking.

When in the video Mr. Romney talks about 47 percent of the population that does not pay taxes, he is presumably speaking of less-wealthy households. And if you use income as your main divider of our 12 types, the inverse of what Mr. Romney said is often true. It is the poorer counties that are the most reliably Republican and in fact Mr. Romney needs them to help him win in November

The small-town Service Worker Centers (in red on the map below), rural agricultural Tractor Country (in pink) and socially conservative Evangelical Epicenter counties (in yellow), have all voted with the GOP presidential candidate in each of the last three presidential races.

Those three types have median household incomes of $35,000, $33,000 and $31,000 respectively, compared to a national county average of $37,000. And the Tractor Country and Evangelical Epicenter counties have given the Republican candidate a margin of at least 22 percentage points in every election since 2000.

At the same time, the wealthiest county type, the largely suburban Monied Burbs, have gone Democratic in every election since 2000. And President Barack Obama won those counties by double digits in 2008. The other big Democratic strongholds in Patchwork Nation, the big city Industrial Metros and collegiate Campus and Careers counties, also are above average on the median household income scale.

A simple comparison of maps of median household income shows that the center of the country and the South, where the Republicans do better in elections, have lower incomes. Meanwhile the population centers on the East and West coasts and in the Midwest, which tend to favor Democrats, are also wealthier. The 2008 election results offer an example.

What’s going on?

What was most surprising about Mr. Romney’s statements is not that they were wrong, it was how deeply they misunderstood what moves many voters. His argument that poorer people tend to vote Democratic, while wealthier people tend to vote Republican out of economic interest ignores key motivating factors that Patchwork Nation has studied for years and that campaigns use to their advantage – sociocultural issues like abortion rights, gay rights, gun rights and the role of religious faith in general.

On our visits to Evangelical Epicenter communities like Nixa, Mo., and, most recently, Gastonia, N.C., the vein of social conservatism runs deep, certainly deeper than simple economic interest.

If voters in these places voted purely along economic lines, they might go Democratic on Election Day. But as we have heard on our talks with people in these communities, values matter. And as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, one would think Mr. Romney would be aware of those cultural markers.

Did Mr. Romney do damage with voters he will need in November with his fundraising speech? Maybe. As we have noted on this page and in The Wall Street Journal in recent weeks, Mr. Romney seems to be having a hard time winning over those Service Worker Centers, which are conservative, but lack the social conservatism of the Evangelical Epicenters.

But, more to the point, his talk seemed to show a big hole in his knowledge of the American electorate.