Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush put it all out there for friends and foes to pore over — 33 years of federal tax returns. Democratic front runner Hillary Clinton released 15 years of her tax returns while former corporate executive Carly Fiorina published her 2010 and 2011 returns.
But other presidential wannabees have yet to embrace such transparency, including Ohio Gov. John Kasich, according to the Tax History Project, which maintains a clearinghouse of publicly released tax returns from presidents and presidential candidates.
Experts say the disclosures provide more information to voters than how wealthy the candidates are. Voters like to relate to the people who are running, or at least feel they are looking out for them. The longer candidates refuse to reveal details about their income or sources of income, the more questions get raised about the reasons behind the secrecy.
“I suspect they will all release some sort of financial statement relatively soon, especially if they plan on staying in the race, primarily because they need to appear transparent,” said Mark Caleb Smith, political scientist at Cedarville University. “If you’re unwilling to release tax returns, fairly or unfairly, people will assume you have something to hide. For most politicians, they’d rather get out in front of that and release the information, deal with the political blow back and then just move on.”
Joseph Thorndike, who directs the Tax History Project for TaxAnalysts, said candidates like to hold out on campaign disclosures as long as possible, though he too expects most will eventually follow in the footsteps of Bush, Clinton and Fiorina.
“For the most part, I don’t think anybody is going to release them until they feel like there is something really on the line,” he said. “By the time we get to Iowa, the field is going to be thinner than it is right now.”
Kasich campaign spokesman Rob Nichols said, “As always, the governor will follow the law and all relevant requirements, but we’re not at the point where we’ve decided if that’s insufficient.”
Income tax returns are secret, legally protected against unauthorized disclosure. But since the early 1970s, presidents have opted to release their returns publicly, according to the Tax History Project. And presidential candidates, starting when Michigan Gov. George Romney released 12 years of returns during the 1968 campaign, have elected to release a varied number of tax returns, according to efile.com.
Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP nominee and one of the wealthiest men to ever run for the White House, bowed to pressure and released his 2010 federal return in January 2012 and then nine months later succumbed to more pressure and released his 2011 returns.
Information in the returns can open a candidate up to criticism about paying a lower tax rate, giving too little to charity or being a rich plutocrat.
As a young state senator running for Congress in 1982, Kasich voluntarily released three years of income tax returns and challenged incumbent Democrat Bob Shamansky to do the same. Shamansky released his 1981 return six months later and went on to lose the race to Kasich.
In the 2010 race for governor, incumbent Democrat Ted Strickland released 10 years of returns and pushed Kasich to disclose. But Kasich, who had worked on Wall Street after 18 years in Congress, initially refused. Then he compromised and allowed reporters to look at — but not copy — his 2008 income tax return and summary.
“I don’t know what that’s supposed to accomplish because even a true tax expert can’t look at a complicated return and size up immediately what’s going on. It’s more opaque than that,” said Thorndike of TaxAnalysts, a non-profit that provides tax news and analysis.
Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said a partial release can open a candidate up for further criticism. “Kasich allowed reporters to see his 2008 return but declined to release returns from earlier than that, leading Democrats to suggest that Kasich was hiding the amount of money he made while working for Lehman Brothers.”
In a presidential campaign, Smith said Kasich can play it one of two ways: release now or release later.
“If he thinks there is something negative in there, then he really can’t afford to release right now. He needs to climb in the polls a little bit. He needs to show he’s a top-tier candidate. If he thinks there is any chance these releases will prevent that from happening, it’s just not worth it,” Smith said. He added, “If there is nothing there, if there’s no problem, I’d say release it — the sooner the better.”
The push for transparency can backfire.
Ohio Republican James Rhodes challenged incumbent Democrat Richard Celeste to release his returns during the 1986 gubernatorial race. Rhodes’ returns showed he and his wife had an income of $9.1 million over the previous five years and Celeste disclosed 16 years of returns and a financial statement showing a net worth of $310,000, according to the Washington Post.
“The bottom line is that candidates in our contemporary world understand that they are sacrificing their privacy in any number of ways, of which taxes is probably one of the more minor ones,” Thorndike said. “They’ve given up pretty much every shred of their privacy in order to run for office. I think this is one more piece of information that we as a country now demand of our candidates. It’s not legally required.”
Perhaps the biggest wild card on disclosure is self-professed billionaire Donald Trump. He has not released his tax returns, but financial disclosure forms he filed with the Federal Election Commission show what was already known about him: He is rich.
While lacking in many details, such as how much he is ultimately worth, the documents show the global scope of Trump’s business operations, which include vast real estate holdings, millions in income from speeches and television and business interests throughout the world, including in China and Korea.
Whether Trump discloses more. including how much he has paid in taxes, may depend on how long he sticks around.
“If any candidate could get away with (non-disclosure), it would be him right now,” Smith said. “It’s just incredible.”