NEAL CONAN, HOST:
A little more than an hour ago, Mother Jones, the liberal magazine, posted online the full video of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney at a fundraiser held in Boca Raton, Florida, in May. Portions of the secretly taped remarks were released yesterday and set off a political storm over the candidate's comments that almost half of America believes they are victims, pays no taxes and expects the government to take care of them. Here's a clip of the tape and let me warn you, it's sometimes difficult to understand.
(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDED SPEECH)
MITT ROMNEY: 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. But that's an entitlement, and the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what.
And I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49, 43. 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. He'll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean, that's what they sell every four years.
And so my job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them. They should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. What I have to do is convince the 5 to 10 percent in the center that are independents, that are thoughtful, that look at voting one way or the other depending upon in some cases emotion, whether they like the guy or not.
CONAN: In case you didn't understand all of that, Mitt Romney said, 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. He also said, these are people who pay no income tax.
At a news conference last night, Governor Romney stood by his comments. They were off the cuff, he said, not elegantly stated, and he hope the person who had the video would put out the full material to put it in context. Well, now that's happened. NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving has spent the last hour or so watching that video. He'll join us in just a moment. If you have questions about the 47 percent and who they are, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. NPR Washington editor - senior Washington editor Ron Elving joins us here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much for being with us, Ron.
RON ELVING, BYLINE: Always good to be with you, Neal.
CONAN: And you've seen the rest of the video. In context, is there anything additional?
ELVING: Not much. More of same but nothing probably as salient as the two or three bites that people have been seeing and the ones, of course, what you just read. The ones having to do with the impossibility of the peace process in the Middle East, as he said. Palestinians have no interest in peace, he said. And then, of course, starts some other things about his campaign, about the way he conducts it, about the way he's made use of his wife, Ann Romney, in the campaign and why he's not using her more, things of that nature. All of which, I believe, had been made public before the full 59-minute video.
CONAN: And can you tell us a little bit about the context? This was last spring, Boca Raton. He nailed down the nomination, obviously not officially the nominee yet.
ELVING: That's correct. He was shifting into the phase of the campaign in which he was clearly the nominee. The primaries, while they were still working themselves through, were in effect over. There where no real rivals for him anymore. He had the nomination in hand, so he was shifting to being the party nominee and to raising money. And he was very frank about that and very candid about that with this group who had paid $50,000 per plate to attend the dinner at the home of Marc Leder in Boca Raton, Florida. He also has a home in Bridgehampton, New York, and some other places.
And this backer, who is also in the private equity business, had made his home available and invited in a group of people who were spending this amount of money to have this intimate time and many of them spent some time instructing Mitt Romney on how he ought to run, and they give him their opinions in a very forthright manner. So it's a give and take, but he is standing up and he is addressing the group, and he had given a speech before this Q and A session began.
CONAN: And he said this was not elegantly stated, but he stands by it. How different is this from the message that we're hearing from him in publicly available session?
ELVING: Well, at one point during the videotape, he actually does describe how he will go about presenting himself differently from what he's doing at this particular moment and how he's going to talk about how to bring people over who voted for Obama last time and what the right words already used and so on. And we have heard him do so. He been very disciplined about that message.
What he says here is he just started talking about this 47, 48 percent of the people who are supposedly going to be with Barack Obama no matter what. Well, he's been lower than that in the polls at a number of times, and he's had lower approval well below of that figure at various times. But he uses that figure back in May, and I suppose you could apply that to approximately how many people say they're supporting the president today. He goes on to describe those people and then goes on to say, and these are the people who don't pay a federal income tax.
Not talking about payroll tax or some of the other excise taxes and so on that federal government imposes, but he was just talking about federal income tax. And yes, that is about the figure of the proportion of the American people who do not pay federal income taxes. But these two groups...
CONAN: But that's not the same group?
ELVING: No. They're numerically similar groups. They're almost the same number of people, but they're not the same people. There's overlap, but it's certainly not perfect. In fact, among other things, the Gallup poll just out, which shows the race between the two candidates very close, says that about a third of all the people in the lowest income category, $24,000 a year or less, are for Romney. They're telling Gallup they're going to vote for Romney; a third of them of the people in the very lowest income category who could not pay federal income tax.
And also, another group who are at very low rates of paying federal income tax because of they're on Social Security, low-income seniors living on Social Security, about a fourth or a little more than a fourth of those people say they're voting for Mitt Romney. So these two groups of people are clearly not co-identical.
CONAN: Yet this is a consistent argument that you hear from some conservatives, that there is this group of people who've been made dependent on the government. And indeed the Democrats are trying to increase that number because that will increase the number of their voters.
ELVING: And I supposed that there is a number of people who do feel dependent on the federal government for one reason or another. About a quarter of the people in the country are receiving some kind of assistance from Medicaid. Fifteen percent, not another 15 percent, but 15 percent are receiving food stamps. Smaller percentages receive money from what's called the WIC Program, Women, Infants and Children. And I suppose if you want to lump in the people who then get a Social Security check and say that they are dependent on the federal government, I don't think many Social Security recipients would appreciate that description because they think of their Social Security benefit as theirs, they worked for.
CONAN: And something they earned and paid into over the years.
ELVING: Absolutely. Nonetheless it is a government check. Also, the people who get a check from the military or get a check from Veterans Affairs have veteran's benefits and so on. By the time you add all of those together - Social Security alone is 61 million people who received Social Security checks. By the time you put all of that together, yeah, you could get up pretty close to half of the people in the country. But I don't believe that's what Mitt Romney was aggregating when he said 47, 48 percent of the people in the country. He doesn't expect everybody in the country who's on Social Security to vote for Barack Obama. He knows better.
CONAN: Otherwise, he's been wasting his time in Florida. So anyway, as you look at this film, he seems to be dismissive of these people who he says are taking money from the government and won't vote for him no matter what. That this is somehow putting them in a lesser category, I think is fair to say.
ELVING: He says they think of themselves as victims, that they believe their entitled to health care, to food, to housing, you name it. It's an entitlement. The government should just give it to them. This is the way sometimes politicians talk when they're with their friends or with their closest supporters, when they're with their people who are going to give the money. And I don't mean just Mitt Romney or just Republicans. This is what candidates do. They tend to, you know, dish out the red meat when they're dealing with people that they think want to be fed some red meat because they want to get them to loosen up and write some big checks.
CONAN: We have some people on the line with questions about the 47 percent. 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. Warren is on the line from Charleston.
CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
WARREN: Yeah. I just don't understand where the 47 percent came from. I mean, I'm not - I've been out of work, and I'll say, you know, I've had a job. I've had a variety of different jobs for four years now. I've done everything from teaching at middle school to teaching at tech college. I'm on my way right now to take gasoline samples. You know, I've had a myriad of different jobs and I'm resurfacing tennis courts. And all of this stuff seems to be almost kind of part-time.
But I paid, I don't know, $6,000, $7,000 of income taxes last year. But I figured, what I paid, because of all of the (unintelligible) funds and the 1 percent and the other stuff that's on my back, I paid 47 percent of my income that I made last year in taxes in one form or another. I don't understand how they can say all the people - the lowest people in society - and I consider myself having fallen pretty low since I lost my job a few years ago. And I've got a college degree. And I don't...
CONAN: We can tell because you used the word myriad.
CONAN: We could tell because you use the word myriad.
WARREN: Yeah. I'm sorry. I didn't understand you. But...
CONAN: Oh, that's all right.
WARREN: ...I just - I don't understand where, you know, this whole notion that people aren't paying taxes. I listened to - today, I heard on "The View," I heard Barbara Walters say it's a fact, 47 percent of the people aren't paying any taxes.
CONAN: And just to refer you back to what Ron Elving said, 47 percent of the people do not pay federal income taxes. It's not to say that they're not paying all these excise taxes that you're talking about or sales taxes or that they don't have money taken out of their checks for, among other things, Social Security.
ELVING: That's right. The payroll tax is the tax that is paid by more people than any other. And, in fact, of the people that Mitt Romney says don't pay federal income taxes, and maybe they don't, two-thirds of those people do pay the payroll taxes that the caller is referring to. And without looking at the caller's tax return, it's possible for various and sundry kinds of taxes to really pile up on someone, particularly someone who doesn't have any shelters.
CONAN: Let's go next to Joshua. Joshua with us from Havelock, North Carolina.
JOSHUA: Hi, Neal. How are you doing today?
CONAN: I'm well. Thank you.
JOSHUA: First off, as an Obama voter, his comments were out of line and ridiculous and offensive. However, returning to the question at hand. Had these type of surreptitiously recordings and (unintelligible) an election at this stage of the game and could it influence this election, or is Romney so out of help, it won't matter.
CONAN: I think of at least two examples from the last election cycle, Ron Elving, one in Virginia and, of course, Barack Obama four years ago.
ELVING: In San Francisco when he said that - in response to a question about why people seemed to be so conservative in certain kinds of parts of the country, he said, well, you know, in some of these parts of the country, economically, they have been left behind, and they've become bitter, and they cling to their guns and religion. Those were fighting words for an awful lot of people, and they hurt him badly in the late primaries in the Democratic contest against Hillary Clinton, almost caused him the nomination and, of course, came back many times to hurt him thereafter and are being cited today...
CONAN: Paul Ryan's stump speech, yeah.
ELVING: ...by the Romney campaign and by others to say, well, this isn't the first time we've heard somebody letting their hair down in front of fundraisers and saying some things that were highly impolitic.
CONAN: And not precisely analogous, but the macaca moment in the Senate race in Virginia, a public event being recorded by a videographer that came back to haunt George Allen and probably cost him that election. In the meantime - but what about the other question, how is this going to affect the race? Democrats, of course, are outraged. What about Republicans?
ELVING: Republicans are partly outraged at the fact that this has emerged and that it's being used to attack their candidate. I think some of them are probably also a little distressed at the impolitic nature of some of the language, think it's unfortunate. Whatever they may think of the basic idea, it is a figure that is widely abroad in Republican discussion, this 47 percent pay no federal income tax. And I believe, in this context, this Boca Raton fundraiser that that figure had been mentioned by one of the questioners, and that was what Mitt Romney was responding to before he took off on this problematic description of these people.
CONAN: And the release of the whole video, is that going to help Mitt Romney's cause? Are we going to now understand the context in which he said this in a better way?
ELVING: I can't see how it alters anybody's impression, except that watching the entire thing or watching it multiple times is probably just going to emphasize or deepen the impression that people are taking away from it.
CONAN: Ron Elving, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.
ELVING: Thank you. Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Senior Washington editor, Ron Elving, with us here in Studio 3 A. Of course, there will be more on this later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. We may discuss it tomorrow as well here on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.