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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Prince Or Pauper: Does Financial Status Matter To Voters?

Daniel Rothberg |
July 10, 2012 | 5:44 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Creative Commons / Gage Skidmore
Creative Commons / Gage Skidmore
Last week, Vanity Fair published an account of Mitt Romney's financial dealings, including details about his offshore accounts and his individual retirement fund containing up to $102 million. Romney's net worth is reported to be about $250 million.

Democrats quickly pounced on the report, attacking the former Massachusetts governor on the Sunday morning shows. Robert Gibbs, campaign adviser to opponent Barack Obama and former White House secretary, joined a choir of key Democratic leaders who criticized Romney over his offshore accounts. 

"This is a guy whose slogan is 'Believe in America' when it should be 'Business in Bermuda,'" Gibbs said on CNN.

On Thursday, Romney's experience at Bain Capital returned as a source of controversy after The Boston Globe reported he remained chief executive and chairman at the firm three years longer than he claimed, until 2002. Romney's campaign told CNN the article "is not accurate."

Romney argues he resigned in February 1999, and was not involved in some of the firm's companies going bankrupt and laying off workers after that date.

While both campaigns are acting under the presumption that financial backgrounds are important to voters, one big question remains: Do voters really care?

Despite a flurry of early negative ads hitting Romney for his time at Bain Capital and Obama for his handling of the economy, polls have largely stayed the same. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll showed the two candidates tied at 47 percent.

John Sides, a George Washington University professor and contributor to The Monkey Cage, said though it's too early to tell for sure, the stable polls suggest Romney's investments are unlikely to significantly influence the race.

"Given how stable the polls have been, despite the Obama campaign's focus on Romney's experience at Bain Capital, I wouldn't expect Romney's investments to have a dramatic effect in this race," Sides said in an email.

Sides also said party loyalties typically matter more to a voter's opinion than a candidate's financial background.

"They might be one ingredient in how voters form impressions of the candidates as people, but only one ingredient among many," Sides said. "Moreover, people tend to form impressions of the candidates that are in line with their pre-existing party loyalties. If Obama had money in the Cayman Islands, you can bet Democrats would be more than willing to forgive him."

Nick Carnes, an assistant professor of public policy at Duke University, said it is hard for social scientists and political scientists to determine the extent to which financial backgrounds affect elections because most recent presidential contests have pitted a millionaire against a millionaire. 

"By the time voters get to the polls in a presidential election, their choices are usually limited to a millionaire or a millionaire," Carnes said. "Even in the 2012 election, those are most likely going to be the two choices, so it is actually tough to say."

President Obama's net worth is estimated at around $10.5 million.

Though empirical evidence does not reveal much information, Carnes said there has been some research using hypothetical candidates. Meredith Sadin of Princeton University created scenarios comparing rich candidates with some who are not to find voters do care about a candidate's financial background.

"She's found that there are differences," Carnes said. "Voters perceive rich candidates as potentially more out of touch and also a little more savvy in certain ways. So voters definitely see the financial backgrounds of candidates. Social scientists and political scientists just can’t see how that affects elections because by the time the election rolls around, voters don’t usually get a choice about the financial background of the person.”

As the research suggests, personal wealth can play out as a factor in several ways during an election. If a candidate is perceived as out of touch, it can be a big blow to their campaign, Carnes said.

"Being out of touch and seeming like a snob has always been a liability," he explained, "whether it's not knowing how a cash register works or liking to windsurf or not knowing how many houses you have."

Robert Y. Shapiro, a political science professor at Columbia University, said a wealthy financial background can also serve to strengthen a candidate's biography.

"When Ross Perot was a presidential candidate, he used his business background to his advantage and in 1992 he did very well as a third-party candidate getting 19 percent of the vote," Shapiro said in an email.

But Romney's attempt to campaign on his business record hasn't been a foolproof strategy.

"There are questions raised about his own finances; where he keeps his money, where he invests his money and how much of it is actually taxed versus sheltered in different ways,” he said.

The professor said he believes Romney's response to questions about his financial background has negatively affected how the public perceives him.

"I think how Romney and his [campaign] has responded to the Bain departure and his financial holdings and tax returns has reflected badly on how the public perceives his personal qualities as a leader," he said.

In addition, Shapiro said that Romney's lack of transparency only serves as a distraction from important policy issues.

"He has let these issues stay open, taking time away from pressing national issues," he said.

Given the recent reports about Romney's wealth, Shapiro said that if he were advising the Romney campaign, he would recommend the candidate be more transparent about his financial background so that it does not count against him.

"The name of the game here is to simply be straightforward and transparent about this because these are turning into issues and where he can make these issues non-issues by simply disclosing his tax forms and disclosing information. Even if there are some black marks to deal with, it’s better to deal with them than to try to hide them," he said.

"Until it becomes clear about his finances, these issues are going to persist and the president will continue to ask questions about it."


Read more of Neon Tommy's coverage on the 2012 election here.

Reach Staff Reporter Daniel Rothberg here; follow him  here.



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