Why Won’t Romney Release His Tax Returns? Where You Stand Depends on Where You Sit

September 27, 2012, 6:13 PM UTC

Last week Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney released his 2011 tax returns, fulfilling his promise to share the last two years of his tax records. However, Romney’s critics continue to question why he has not released more of his tax records. Senate Majority leader Harry Reid – who earlier this year charged that Romney hadn’t paid taxes in 10 years – said last Friday, “The information released today reveals that Mitt Romney manipulated one of the only two years of tax returns he’s seen fit to show the American people — and then only to ‘conform’ with his public statements. That raises the question: What else in those returns has Romney manipulated?”

In order to measure how the American public would answer Reid’s question, I asked a series of items concerning the controversy over Romney’s tax records. From September 15-17, 2012, YouGov surveyed 1000 Americans to see what they thought about this ongoing issue.

A large majority of the American public is aware of the issues surrounding Romney’s tax returns. I asked, “As you may know, Mitt Romney has released his tax returns from the past two years, but has refused to release his tax returns for any other year.  How much have you heard about Mitt Romney’s tax returns?” Overall, three-quarters of the sample had heard “a lot” (42 percent) or “some” (33 percent). These percentages were almost exactly the same for both Democrats and Republicans.

I then asked, “Regardless of how you feel about Mitt Romney, do you think that Romney should release his earlier tax returns?” Overall a majority of the public – 51 percent – thought Romney should release the returns. But this result from the full sample obscured huge partisan differences: 81 percent of Democrats thought Romney should release the returns, while only 15 percent of Republicans agreed.

This gap between the parties extended to the public’s evaluation of Romney’s motivation for withholding the returns. While we do not know for sure why Romney will not release his returns, I gave respondents 11 plausible explanations to choose from – ranging from Reid’s accusation that “Romney has not paid taxes every year” to “Romney wants to keep his personal life personal.” Respondents to the survey could select as many of the options as they thought applied (on average, they checked 2.7 reasons).

The reason chosen by the most respondents in the sample was, “Romney does not want the public to know how much money he has in overseas accounts,” selected by 47 percent of respondents (The full results are presented in a table at the bottom of this post). But this overall result again obscures huge partisan differences. Among Democrats, the “overseas account” response was the most popular reason, selected by 78 percent of self-identified Democrats. However, only 10 percent of Republicans chose that option. Instead, among Republicans, the most popular response was, “Romney wants to keep his personal life personal,” selected by 68 percent of Republicans (only 21 percent of Democrats selected that option). 

As in other areas of political life, partisans of different stripes view ambiguous information in very different ways. Republicans believe that Romney will not release the returns because he wants to keep his private life private. Democrats, on the other hand, believe that he will not release his returns because they contain information about his financial situation that will paint him in a poor light. 

Altogether, this poll demonstrates that in today’s political world, regardless of the evidence, or lack thereof, a significant portion of the partisan public is willing to believe the worst about their political opponents. 

There has been a lot of talk about why Mitt Romney will not release earlier tax returns.  Why do you think he will not release his taxes? Please check all that apply.
  Full Sample     Democrats  Republicans
Romney has not paid taxes every year.    23% 42% 2%
Romney paid a lower tax rate than he previously stated. 41% 72% 6%
Romney does not want the public to know how much money he has in overseas accounts. 47% 78% 10%
Romney used tax loopholes / had more money in tax shelters in previous years. 46% 74% 12%
Romney's tax returns would show that he was not a resident of Massachusetts in 2010 when he voted in the state election.  12% 21% 3%
Romney does not want to reveal how much he tithed to the Mormon Church. 22% 30% 10%
Romney's tax returns will show he has business partners who are involved in illegal activities. 16% 28% 2%
Romney's tax returns will show he donated money to liberal causes. 5% 8% 3%
Romney does not want his 2009 tax returns to be public because they will show that he took significant losses after the economy crashed. 7% 10% 4%
Romney is more interested in discussing policy issues than his personal finances. 37% 14% 65%
Romney wants to keep his personal life personal. 43% 21% 68%