While Donald Trump resists calls to release his tax returns, Hillary Clinton on Friday revealed that last year she and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, had paid more in federal taxes than most taxpayers in their rarefied federal tax bracket.
The Clintons said they had earned $10.6 million last year in documents released by the Clinton campaign. That places them amid the top tenth of 1 percent of American taxpayers.
When the two major candidates for president are both wealthy beyond the imagination of most Americans, do their tax returns matter?
A recent Rasmussen polls found that 67 percent of likely voters think that all presidential candidates should make at least their latest tax returns public.
“This is the kind of issue that sort of reinforces what you believe,” said Terry Madonna, an independent pollster and director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania. “I don’t know if the average, independent-minded voter is hanging on to every word of this. Trump’s biggest problem right now is Trump.”
Indeed, Clinton released her latest documents, as well as those of her running mate, Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, hoping to capitalize on weeks of missteps by her opponent. Clinton had previously released her returns dating to 1997.
According to an IRS study based on the decade ending 2012, the average federal tax rate for the top 0.001 percent of earners that year – those earning at least $62 million – was 17.6 percent. The Clintons paid 34.2 percent last year – almost twice that. Overall they paid 43.2 percent of their income in federal, state and local taxes.
Meanwhile, Trump has insisted since the primaries that he can’t release his tax returns because the IRS is auditing him. The agency, while not indicating whether the Republican presidential nominee is being audited, has said anyone can release their returns, under audit or not.
Trump has faced a series of self-inflicted controversies since the Democratic National Convention last month, when he suggested that Russia should hack into Hillary Clinton’s emails from when she was secretary of state. He later attacked a Gold Star Muslim American couple who spoke at the convention.
Since then, the Republican presidential nominee has appeared to suggest that Second Amendment supporters might shoot Clinton to prevent her, as president, from selecting judges who opposed gun rights. On Wednesday, he labeled Clinton and President Barack Obama the “founders” of the Islamic State. He has said of both remarks that they were sarcasm misinterpreted by the media.
Recent polls show Clinton leading in most of the battleground states while making surprising inroads in others, like Utah and Georgia, that have been troublesome for Democrats.
“Clearly, he’s showing a shrinking electoral map,” said Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion. The tax returns issue “is not going to get him on the message he wants to be on.”
Jimmy Carter released his returns in 1976; incumbent President Gerald Ford released a summary. Since then, 19 of 20 major-party presidential candidates have released at least a year of tax returns, according to Joseph Thorndike, the director of the Tax History Project at Tax Analysts, a nonpartisan policy organization, and author of the “Politics of Federal Taxation” column for Tax Notes magazine.
Releasing tax returns hasn’t cost a presidential candidate an election, Thorndike said. But the reluctance or hesitance to do so has been harmful.
Like Trump, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP White House hopeful, was hesitant to release his returns. Like Clinton, Obama made it a campaign issue.
“It was a large deal during the Romney campaign because he tried to push back against the tradition of release,” Thorndike said. “Have there been any bombshells in releasing these returns? Not really. It’s not the returns that trip them up. It’s the willingness or unwillingness to release them.”
In an interview on ABC, Trump himself said of Romney: “He waited till September to give ’em, just before the election. They made him look so bad. It was so unfair.”