Even before Tuesday, Mitt Romney was struggling to connect to average voters, suffering from impromptu remarks — proffering a $10,000 wager in a debate, suggesting $375,000 in speaking fees was small change — that gave off a whiff of privilege.
Then came Romney’s release of tax returns showing that in 2010 he claimed $21.6 million in income, with an effective tax rate of less than 14%, far less than many middle-class families pay. He also estimated $20.9 million in income for 2011, with a rate of just over 15%.
Jeanne Johnson, a political independent and owner of the Lake Alfred Barber Shop, said that when she heard the news of Romney’s taxes on TV, “I thought I was going to throw up.”
“It just ruined my day,” said Johnson, 51, a single mother of two who has been cutting hair since she was 20. “Like, get a real job.”
Others living in her politically crucial area of Florida, where Republican presidential candidates are rushing raucously toward a Jan. 31 primary, took offense not at the sums but at Romney’s resistance to releasing his taxes until he was forced.
“He hid his taxes,” said Helen Roise, 70, a tax preparer at H&R Block in Plant City, a central Florida hub that bills itself as the winter strawberry capital of the world. “He didn’t want us people to know. That’s what bothered me.”
Even so, Roise planned to vote for Romney, mainly because she is from Michigan and remembers his father, George, as a good governor.
For ill or good, said political strategists who have worked for super-rich candidates, Romney’s move was meant to stanch a self-inflicted wound: his reluctance to give in to what is demanded of any wealthy individual seeking office.
The release of the returns “ripped the Band-Aid off,” said Republican strategist Rob Stutzman, who managed Romney’s 2008 California campaign but is sitting out this primary. “But they only went back two years and that could become a problem if the question is why they didn’t show more.”
Romney’s taxes weren’t yet the talk of Florida, but political strategists were watching for the fallout because the group most likely to take offense at them is also the bloc Republicans most need in the fall to defeat President Obama — lower-income and working-class whites.
Doubts about Romney’s appeal to those voters have been underscored in the first three contests. In both Iowa and South Carolina, Romney lost all but the most affluent voters to Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich, respectively. Even in New Hampshire, which Romney won handily, he lost to Paul among voters making less than $30,000 a year and just edged him among voters making between $30,000 and $50,000.
Patricia Radziwill senses a disconnect. “I don’t think he knows how to relate to everyday people,” said Radziwill, one of about 2,000 people who showed up for a Gingrich rally Tuesday in Sarasota. “He’s a very wealthy man. I don’t begrudge him that, but I don’t think he gets it.”
As for the drawn-out debate over releasing his taxes: “That’s just unacceptable. Just release them and get it over with,” Radziwill said.
Stutzman and others said Romney never really had a choice about releasing at least some tax records. Better, they agreed, to have done so sooner, the way publisher Steve Forbes — the last mega-wealthy White House aspirant — did in 1999.
He issued a summary of three year’s worth of returns in the week between Christmas and New Year’s after learning the hard way. In 1996, the first time the mega-millionaire ran, he was pilloried for refusing to release them.
By equivocating this year, Romney “highlighted the issue,” said K.B. Forbes, a spokesman for Steve Forbes’ 2000 campaign who is not related to the candidate.
Indeed, Democrats were quick to seize on the subject, with left-leaning tax experts dissecting Romney’s just-released information and highlighting the apparent savings he received from tax “loopholes” and deductions available only to the very wealthy.
In an obvious bit of tax-related messaging, the White House, which hopes to frame President Obama’s reelection campaign around the issue of economic fairness, invited Warren Buffett’s secretary to join First Lady Michelle Obama as her guest for the State of the Union speech. (The billionaire businessman has said it is not right that he pays taxes at a lower rate than his secretary; by his account, Buffett paid a higher rate than Romney.)
For the time being, voters were left to ponder. Several said they were bothered by Romney’s enormous income, which he made off investments while essentially running full time for president.
“Does it seem fair that anybody should be in power who makes that kind of money?” asked Ron Gainey, 68, a part-time insurance agent in Plant City who voted early and cast his ballot for former House Speaker Gingrich.
“Can he relate to the normal working guy, Joe the Plumber or whoever?” Gainey asked of Romney. “Other side of the coin, if he’s smart enough to make that much money, he may be bringing something to the table as well.”
Times staff writers Seema Mehta in Sarasota, Fla., and Paul West in Lehigh Acres, Fla., contributed to this report.