I work closely with many financial professionals, tax preparers and accountants, but I am not one myself. However, I’ve grown to know much about their profession.
First, regarding Mitt Romney having not yet completed his 2011 return, this is not unusual. As is the case with most business owners and high net-worth individuals, extensions are a regular part of compliance. It simply takes them longer to receive many of the documents they need to complete their tax returns accurately, which is why the IRS makes it pretty much automatic to receive a 6-month extension. This is not at all irregular, nor should this alone cast doubts on the most current return.
However, the crux of the argument from the media, most Democrats and a few Republicans and independents is that, while Romney has disclosed his 2010 income tax return and the 2011 estimate, with plans to release his 2011 return, most presidential nominees, Republican and Democrat, have offered several years of returns for public viewing.
The supposed standard for releasing a certain number of years’ worth of returns is George Romney, Mitt Romney’s father, who campaigned for the Republican nomination in 1968. It’s not a requirement or a law, just what the American people have come to consider an appropriate amount of openness when it comes to our potential elected officials. We want to know if they’ve been arrested (even driving records go 3-5 years), if they’ve been convicted of something, and also their financial status.
Romney’s dad, a former Michigan governor, CEO of American Motors Corporation and multi-millionaire, released 12 years of his previous tax returns during his campaign. And he stated that releasing only a couple of years’ worth could be nothing but a fluke or a sham.
Looking at the presidential candidates since 1968, there isn’t really a 12-year standard, but there is a standing tradition of releasing several (at least 5-7) years. As a result, most presidential candidates since then, from both parties, have released at least at least years.
Prior to the 2008 election, President Barack Obama released returns covering 7 years, going back to 2000. His tax returns since then have also been made public. In his campaign against Obama, the Republican Party’s nominee for president, U.S. Senator and decorated U.S. Navy Veteran John McCain, released 23 years of previous 1040s, which is also the number of years of returns his campaign asked of his potential running mates (which included Mitt Romney) during the vetting process.
By the time the 2004 presidential election arrived, incumbent President George W. Bush had released 13 years of returns (he had released returns back to 1991 during his campaign for the presidency in 2000, and also had made public returns during his time in office. The Democratic Party’s nominee in 2004, U.S. Senator John Kerry, released 5 years of tax returns.
One of the Romney campaign’s arguments has been that Senator Kerry’s wife, millionaire heiress Teresa Heinz Kerry, did not also disclose her returns, which were filed as “Married Filing Separate,” since here millions were inherited from her family, and were not a part of the marital joint property. The Obama campaign in 2008 used Ms. McCain’s response to NBC’s Today Show, as a retort. "This is a privacy issue. My husband is the candidate," Cindy McCain said interview with NBC's "Today Show," she said at the time. (However, Cindy McCain soon released her 2006 return. In 2004, Teresa Heinz Kerry never did.)
The 2000 presidential campaign (which surprisingly was not disrupted by the Y2K bug, or the movie “Office Space,” but instead by the Supreme Court and “hanging chads”) pitted a Democrat, Vice President Al Gore, against the eventual winner, the Republican Governor of Texas, George W. Bush.
During the campaign, as noted in above in the remarks about his 2004 re-election campaign, Governor Bush had provided tax returns dating back to 1991, prior to his campaign for governor, and had also made the returns public during his first term as President. So, by the 2004 election, Bush had released his tax returns for 13 years.
The two-term Vice President Gore (previously a Senator since 1984) made public his tax returns for the 16 years he had served as Senator and Vice President. As a result, he was scorned by some for contributing very little to charity during one of his years in office, but he released them, nevertheless.
During the Presidential election of 1996, where incumbent President Bill Clinton was seeing re-election to office (and had, to-date, released 19 years of returns), Republican challenger, U.S. Senator Bob Dole, released 30 years of tax returns during the primaries. This likely stands as the record, although some have speculated that it was to deter his primary challenger, billionaire Steve Forbes, from doing the same. Previous to his initial 1992 race, the Clinton campaign had released tax returns dating back to 1980 (the “Romney Standard” of 12 years).
Arkansas’ Democratic Governor Bill Clinton won a hotly contest 1992 presidential contest against incumbent U.S. President George H. W. Bush and independent candidate Ross Perot. Clinton had initially released his tax returns dating back until 1980 (12 years), but after a controversy about alleged illegal real estate trading called “Whitewater,” the Clintons later released returns from three previous years, totaling 15 years.
In his previous campaign for president in 1988, when George H. W. Bush was the Vice President under President Ronald Reagan, Bush had provided tax returns dating back 14 years. Having made his tax returns public during his time in office, by 1992, he had released 18 years of tax returns.
Ross Perot was the X-factor in 1992 (he ran again, much less effectively, in 1996). The billionaire businessman, founder of Electronic Data Systems and independent candidate for President, received nearly 19 percent of the popular vote, but did not win a state, still played the role of spoiler. Perot never released his tax returns, but estimates at the time suggested he was worth around $3 billion, and had paid as little as 6.8 percent of his 1991 income in taxes.
As Republican President Ronald Reagan prepared to leave office, the 1988 primaries and eventual final campaign heated up. Although Reagan’s Vice President, George H. W. Bush would win in a landslide, the Democratic primaries were contested by at least 10 candidates, including future Vice President Joe Biden, future Vice President Al Gore, civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, and then Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, who would be the primary winner and contender against Vice President Bush. Dukakis won the 1988 Democratic primary, and eventually released returns dating back only 6 years, to 1982.
During the Republican Party’s primary campaign, Vice President Bush made public 14 years of his prior tax returns, which included the years he served as Vice President.
Incumbent Republican President Ronald Reagan had initially resisted sharing more than his prior year tax return, but relented during the campaign and released 10 years of returns prior to his 1980 campaign, and thus by 1984, had released 14 years, including those from his years in office. In 1984, Reagan ran against former Vice President and Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale. Mondale had released his returns since he was elected Vice President in 1976, by this point totaling eight years.
This was, perhaps, the first time the argument about spousal income became a significant factor. Also for the first time, one of the vice presidential candidates was a woman: Geraldine Ferraro, a New York Congresswoman and Mondale’s pick for VP. Ferraro was the first woman of either major political party to appear on the VP slate; former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin in 2008 was the second.
While Ferraro had released several years of her own returns (Married Filing Separately), her husband, John Zaccaro, initially refused. A media and public response followed that initial reluctance, including an ABC News report that stated, "Senior advisers are now clearly worried that the tax return controversy is taking on a life of its own."
That was in 1984, 28 years ago, but sounds similar to some issues Mitt Romney is facing in the 2012 campaign. Zaccaro and the Mondale-Ferraro campaign eventually released six years of his individual returns, although it was reported later that Ferraro’s husband, Zaccaro, did not release some business-related returns. In 1995, he pled guilty to fraudulently obtaining bank financing in a real estate transaction and was sentenced to 150 hours of community service, and in October 1986, he was indicted, but acquitted, of unrelated bribery charges.
Reagan vs. Carter. That was nearly the equivalent of Ali vs. Frazier, with Reagan winning in a landslide. The Iranian hostage crisis was a major factor in this race, coming in the summer of 1980, and after the failed hostage rescue attempt weighing heavily on American voters. Incumbent President Jimmy Carter, former governor of Georgia, had released four years of tax returns prior to his 1976 election win against President Gerald Ford, and so, by 1980, had released 8 years.
The ultimately successful campaign of former California governor and actor Ronald Reagan, after initially declining to release his tax returns, soon provided them dating back 10 years before.
Romney v. Obama, 2012
So, while general precedent has been that the two major party’s presidential nominees offer their tax returns for several years, there isn’t an exact number (but there is an average, since 1976 and not including this year, of about 13 years’ worth of returns. And Republicans have generally been more open, at least concerning the number of years, with a few candidates offering more than 20 years.
At the same time, both Democrat and Republican candidates have grumbled and tried to prevent disclosure, at least when it comes to what their wife or husband has made. But so far, Mitt Romney has released his tax return for 2010, and an estimated return for 2011. In the last 32 years, neither party’s nominee has given less than four years’ worth of completed returns at the time of the candidate’s first run for the highest office.
During his 2008 campaign, President Obama, as mentioned previously, released his family’s returns dating to 2000, and has made public those filed during his presidency. This totals 12 years heading into the 2012 presidential election.
Should Romney release more? Is it family privacy? Do you think he’s hiding something? Several other millionaires have run for the office of President, but all in the last 32 years have given us more insight into their credibility.
Quick list of the number of years of returns that presidential candidates since, and including, Ronald Reagan, have made public:
(Winners prior to 2012 listed first.)
Barak Obama-D: 11 years
Willard Romney-R: One year - 2010 (plus estimate of 2011).
Barack Obama-D: 7 years
John McCain-R: 23 years
George W1 Bush-R: 13 years
John Kerry-D: 5 years
George W. Bush-R: 7 years
Al Gore-D: 16 years
Bill Clinton-D: 19 years
Bob Dole-R: 30 years
Bill Clinton-D: 15 years
George H. W. Bush-R: 18 years
George H. W. Bush-R: 14 years
Michael Dukakis-D: 6 years
Ronald Reagan-R: 14 years
Walter Mondale-D: 8 years
Ronald Reagan-R: 10 years
Jimmy Carter-D: 8 years