Back in 2012, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's campaign suffered a blow when a tape was leaked of him grousing that 47 percent of Americans don't pay federal income tax. It was one of the biggest gaffes of the presidential campaign, but a new poll conducted by Ipsos for NPR suggests that many Americans forgot it.
The way Romney characterized those who don't pay federal income taxes is what got him in trouble, but the figure was roughly true. The new poll, however, shows that a majority think that the share of Americans paying no federal income tax is far lower.
The poll gave respondents four options — 39 percent said that only 11 percent of Americans pay zero or negative income tax, and 31 percent said that only 27 percent pay zero or negative income tax. Only 21 percent got it right — right now, around 45 percent pay no federal income tax.
The poll, released the day before Americans' taxes are due, delved into what Americans know and what they believe is wrong with the U.S. tax code — and what they know is limited and at times contradictory. But this isn't just about pointing out what Americans know and don't know. Rather, there could be important policy implications to Americans' misperceptions about the tax system. For example, this question dovetails with questions about what people think the lowest-income Americans' tax rate should be.
Americans underestimate the share of Americans who don't pay federal income taxes
Given four choices of how many Americans pay zero or negative federal income taxes (11, 27, 45, or 63 percent), fully 70 percent of poll respondents chose the options underthe correct answer, which was 45 percent. Some of these people simply have no taxable income, and others get money back as a result of refundable tax credits like the Earned Income Tax Credit. (Of course, these people might pay other taxes, like payroll taxes, as well as whatever sales and property taxes their states impose.)