Thursday, October 2nd, 2014
Half-True
Romney
"In campaigns in the past with Sen. McCain and President George W. Bush and others, they have tended to release tax records in April."

Mitt Romney on Monday, January 16th, 2012 in a Republican presidential debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Mitt Romney says presidential candidates tend to release tax records in April

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, under pressure to release his tax records, now says he'll do it in April 2012 — when taxes are due.

Why wait?

That's tradition, he argued at the Republican presidential debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C., on Jan. 16.

"You know, I looked at what has been done in campaigns in the past with Sen. McCain and President George W. Bush and others. They have tended to release tax records in April or tax season," he said.

Later, he added, "And if I become our nominee, and what's happened in history is people have released them in about April of the coming year, and that's probably what I would do."

PolitiFact has already checked whether presidential candidates usually release their tax returns, a claim we found Mostly True. (There are several notable exceptions, such as publisher Steve Forbes in 1996.)

But the question of timing intrigued us: Is April truly the month of choice?

McCain, Bush and others

We reviewed news accounts going back six presidential elections for clues. 

We've got to mention that there's nothing new about the battle for tax records. Candidates aren't required to disclose them and sometimes don't. Competitors and the press browbeat Jesse Jackson for weeks before he released returns in 1988. Forbes' refusal to release tax records became a hot campaign issue in 1996, since he focused on a proposal for a flat tax. And no sooner had John Kerry released his own tax records in 2004 than the drumbeat began for his wife's financial history.

But back to Romney's appeal to an April tradition.

Here's what we found: 

• April is a typical month to release tax records for the most recent year. It only makes sense — a candidate would file his or her tax return, then release it to the public. There were exceptions, of course, with candidates dragging their feet for weeks or refusing to release records at all.

• Romney focused on two candidates who released tax records after they had wrapped up the GOP nomination, but plenty of primary contenders joined the disclosure-fest earlier in the process. (In 2008, several Republicans declined, but in 2004, all the major Democratic contenders released at least a year's returns, according to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.)

• On Bush and McCain, Romney was generally right. In 2000, Bush released estimates of his earnings and taxes in April but got a six-month extension to release the actual forms in October. In 2004, as president, Bush released records in April. In 2008, Republican nominee McCain released tax records in April. (Democratic primary candidate Hillary Clinton also released her tax return in April; Obama released a batch in March, then his most recent return in April.)

• But the April trend was less clear when it came to previous years' tax records. In 1996, Republican candidate Bob Dole released 30 years of tax returns in January, weeks before he became the presumptive nominee. In 1987, Democrat Michael Dukakis released five years of federal tax returns in November — in advance of the election year and well before the primaries. Dole one-upped him in January 1988 with 21 years of tax returns.

Who kicked off all this voluntary transparency? Romney's father, George, who as a presidential candidate in 1967 released 12 years of income tax returns — in November before election year.

For a quick glimpse at when candidates released returns for the last six presidential races, here's a nonexhaustive list. (It doesn't include every primary candidate, such as the batch of Democrats in 2004 — many of whom were already in the habit of annually releasing returns — nor all sitting presidents, who typically release returns when they file. Both of those categories, because they mostly reflect current returns released around the same time they are filed, would further bulk up the April list.)

Months for tax return releases

November before election year:
Bill Bradley, 1999
Michael Dukakis, 1987 (5 years' worth)

January:
Bob Dole, 1996 (30 years' worth)
Phil Gramm, 1996
Bob Dole, 1988 (21 years' worth)

March:
Barack Obama, 2008 (6 years' worth)

April:
Barack Obama, 2008 (his just filed return)
Hillary Clinton, 2008
John McCain, 2008
John Kerry, 2004
George W. Bush, 2000
Al Gore, 2000
Bob Dole, 1996
Bill Clinton, 1992 (12 years' worth)

May:
Michael Dukakis, 1988
Jesse Jackson, 1988

Our ruling

Romney's right that there's a strong April trend for releasing tax records, especially among politicians who practice annual disclosure. But that's not Romney's history — he's steadfastly refused to open his personal tax records for public consumption. That weakens his appeal to tradition. He could just as easily follow in the footsteps of Obama, Bill Clinton, Dukakis, Dole and his own father and release a batch of earlier federal tax returns now. Meanwhile, he implies that only party nominees release their tax records — when recent history shows primary candidates opening their files to inspection. His statement that candidates "have tended to release tax records in April" is partially accurate, but leaves out important details. We rate his claim Half True.