Libertarians, Independents, and Tea Parties

David Kirby and I have an op-ed in today’s Politico on libertarians as the “leading edge” of the independent vote:

Who are these centrist, independent-minded voters who swung the elections in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts to Republican candidates and are likely to be crucial in races this fall?…

Libertarians seem to be a leading indicator of this trend in centrist, independent-minded voters, based on an analysis of many years of polling data. We estimate that libertarians compose from 14 percent to 23 percent of voters nationally. They are among the few real swing voters in U.S. politics.

We note that libertarian voters started to swing against the Republicans in 2004, before most Republicans did. Then independents swung hard to the Democrats in 2006 and 2008. By 2008, though, libertarian voters had apparently recoiled against the prospect of an Obama-Pelosi-Reid government at a time of financial crisis. By November 2009 and January 2010, a majority of independents had followed the libertarians in turning against the Democrats’ big-government agenda. We go on to say:

So, if many of these centrist, independent voters are indeed libertarians, why aren’t libertarians better recognized?

First, the word “libertarian” is still unfamiliar — even to many who hold “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” views. Pollsters rarely use it….

Second, libertarian voters have traditionally been less likely to organize.

In the past three years, however, libertarians have become a more visible, organized force in politics — particularly as campaigns move online. Ron Paul’s campaign demonstrated that libertarians can organize and raise large sums of money on the Internet.

Meanwhile, tea party protests showed that libertarian-inspired anger can boil over into spontaneous, nationwide rallies. On Sept. 12, 2009, more than 100,000 people marched on Washington to protest federal spending and the growth of government — many carrying nerdy, libertarian-inspired signs such as “I Am John Galt,” referring to the protagonist of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged.”

Libertarians are emerging as a force within U.S. politics. While political leaders such as Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee and media stars like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh are icons to a “conservative base,” it is not yet clear what political leaders might represent these libertarian voters.

But with candidates working to capitalize on voter angst in the 2010 midterms, there are sure to be many politicians angling to lead this libertarian vote.

Meanwhile, a new Politico/TargetPoint poll of people who attended the April 15 Tea Party in Washington found “two camps” there: “one that’s libertarian-minded and largely indifferent to hot-button values issues and another that’s culturally conservative and equally concerned about social and fiscal issues.” They also found a difference in intensity: “Asked to rate their level of anger about 22 issues on a scale of one (not angry at all) to five (extremely angry), the issue that drew the most anger: the growing national debt. The least: courts granting same-sex couples the right to marry. Twenty-four percent said they’re ‘not at all’ upset about gay marriage.”

A recent CBS/New York Times poll found “Tea Party supporters” more conservative than Americans in general on gay marriage. We may be seeing a difference between people who say they like the Tea Parties and those who actually turn out for Tea Party rallies, or possibly Tea Partiers in the Washington area are more socially liberal than they are in other regions.

In particular, the Politico/TargetPoint poll used some of the same questions, drawn from the Gallup Poll and other surveys, that Kirby and I have used to identify libertarians in our “libertarian vote” studies. Here’s the analysis from TargetPoint (emphases added):

IDEOLOGY

The Tea Party is, unsurprisingly, for small-government and cuts to taxes and spending; but there is a clear split when it comes to government promotion of moral values.

  • Overwhelming majorities of 88% and 81% say government is trying to do too many things best left to individuals and businesses, and that government should cut taxes and spending, respectively. But in terms of values, Tea Party attendees are split right down the middle. A slim majority of 51% say “Government should not promote any particular set of values”, versus 46% that say “Government should promote traditional family values in our society.”
  • We can compare these to Gallup data collected in September of 2009: nationally, 57% said government was doing too much (among Republicans it was 80%), while 53% said government should promote traditional values (among Republicans it was 67%). So the Tea Party is actually more conservative than national Republicans when it comes to the size and role of government, but less conservative than national Republicans in terms of government promotion of traditional values.
  • Indeed, combining the responses to some of these questions is a revealing ideological exercise: 43% of attendees said government is doing too much AND that government should promote traditional values, a distinctly conservative view; 42% said government is doing too much AND that government should NOT promote any particular set of values, an ideological view used by the Cato Institute as an indicator of libertarianism (currently 23% of all Americans fit into this category).
  • This split between a libertarian Tea Party and a socially conservative Tea Party is reinforced when we consider the combination of all three ideological questions we asked, questions on the size and role of government, the role of traditional values, and the dynamic between taxes and spending. If we count the number of times a respondent gave the “conservative” answer (government should do less, it should promote traditional values, and cut taxes and spending), 40% of Tea Party attendees gave the conservative answer all three times, and 42% gave the conservative answer only two times. Those that gave only two conservative responses were most likely to defect on the role of traditional values.

Anticipating criticisms, let me note that no survey is definitive, and few survey questions are definitive. It’s possible that some respondents would say “government should do more to solve our country’s problems” meaning that it should be cutting waste and reducing the national debt. And some people might understand “government should promote traditional values” to mean traditional values like self-reliance, thrift, and standing on your own too feet. But overall, I think these questions help us to separate broadly libertarian responses from conservatives and (social-democratic) liberals. And this poll suggests that Tea Partiers are not just conservative Republicans. At least some of them are more libertarian. Politicians trying to appeal to them should keep that in mind.