"A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury" - unknown (frequently attributed to Alexander Fraser Tytler or Alexis de Tocqueville).

Based on exit polls, or reputable (as defined by passing Nate Silver's muster) pre-election polling, is there any data which would indicate what the split was in D/R voting among US citizens who don't pay any federal income taxes, in 2012 federal elections?

Please note that I'm only looking for raw numbers, not for analysis attributing the voting reasons.

NOTE: I know there was data to break down by income level, but that can only serve as very imprecise proxy to the exact question above.

  • 4
    So, put another way, did the 47% put Obama over the top. Good question! Jan 2, 2013 at 22:20
  • <comments removed> Please keep comments focused on improving the post and try to not to turn comment threads into miniature chat rooms and debates. Thanks. Jan 4, 2013 at 13:25
  • I clarified the title a bit.
    – user1530
    Mar 8, 2013 at 20:51

1 Answer 1


As far as I can tell, this information does not actually exist in the form that the question requests. However, an analysis of the demographics of the group in question can lead to some reasonable conclusions. In general, the 47% are chiefly made up of two groups of people: the poor and the elderly. First, lets look at the poor:

According to the Tax Policy Center, about half of those who owe no federal income tax are people whose incomes are so low that when standard income tax provisions — personal exemptions for taxpayers and dependents and the standard deduction — are factored in, that simply leaves no income to be taxed. Those are people who earned less than about $27,000. [1]

The Census Bureau numbers tell us that this group has a clear Democrat party tilt, but it is not by any means exclusively Democrat:

In 2008, when voter turnout rates were at or around record highs, fewer than half (44.9 percent) of adults in households making less than $30,000 per year voted, according to Census Bureau data. And of those who did vote, a substantial chunk voted for John McCain, the Republican candidate: 25 percent of those making under $15,000, and 37 percent of those making $15,000 to $30,000. [2]

Of the other half of the 47% who made enough to owe federal income taxes after taking the standard deductions, but still owed no federal taxes due to some combination of other tax credits, 44% of them are elderly. From the Tax Policy Center:

Tax Credits
(source: taxpolicycenter.org)

This group traditionally votes Republican and in far higher numbers than the group making less than $27,000 a year. The quote below is from a September 2012 article:

In 2008, 70.2 percent of people over age 65 voted, according to the Census Bureau. And in that election, older voters supported John McCain over President Obama by an eight-percentage-point margin, with 53 percent voting for Mr. McCain. The latest New York Times/CBS News poll, conducted last week, showed likely voters in the same age group supporting Mr. Romney by a 15-point margin – even wider than the gap on Election Day 2008. [2]

Of the remaining 56% of people who receive some tax credit that results in a net zero federal tax liability a full 30% receive credits for children and the working poor. These people by definition only make enough to hover around the poverty line and like the first group discussed here can be expected to vote heavily, though not exclusively for the Democrat party.

This data is certainly not sufficient to make projections on the voting habits of the group at large, but it certainly shows that there is something approaching parity between the two parties amongst this group. So given the 6 point win for Obama in 2012, it seems that the votes that "put him over the top" as @Affable Geek rightly calls it were the groups he won by decidedly larger chunks (i.e. blacks, Hispanics, Asians, younger voters and women), rather than a specific economic group:

But he carried a whopping 93% of black voters (representing 13% of the electorate), 71% of Latinos (representing 10%), and also 73% of Asians (3%). What’s more, despite all the predictions that youth turnout would be down, voters 18-29 made up 19% of last night’s voting population -- up from 18% four years ago -- and President Obama took 60% from that group. [3]

  • "the 47% are chiefly made up of two groups of people: the poor and the elderly" - is this backed up by data or just a logical assumption? Especially the "44% are elderly" later in the post. This seems to be the only unrefrenced # in the post.
    – user4012
    Jan 3, 2013 at 15:15
  • @DVK to be clear, the 44% figure for the elderly is of the half that do not pay no income taxes based solely on the standard deductions. Their proportion of the entire "47%" therefore is roughly 25%, though that specific number was not available. Jan 3, 2013 at 15:19
  • Also, it seems that, since we don't know how the elderly broke out based on income level (e.g. are those elderly who comprise the 44% of the poor among those who voted for McCain or Romney???), the TL;DR seems to be "We just don't know"?
    – user4012
    Jan 3, 2013 at 15:20
  • @DVK again, the elderly number comes from the half that made enough to need additional credits beyond the standard deduction. So we know that they are mutually exclusive from the first group. I have added a link to the Tax Policy Center study and embedded their chart as well. Jan 3, 2013 at 15:23
  • 1
    Sorry, I was unclear. We know that elderly were 44% of the "no taxes" group. We know elderly in general broke 53/45 for McCain. What we do NOT know, is whether those 44% of elderly who paid no taxes ALL voted for McCain, or ALL voted for Obama. That makes a major difference given their 44% weight.
    – user4012
    Jan 3, 2013 at 15:25

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