Libertarian Voters: Still Invisible in New Pew Study

The Pew Research Center recently issued a major study of political ideology in America, based on 10,000 interviews early this year. That’s far bigger than most polls, so it allows more detailed examination of diverse political opinions. Indeed, the study is titled “Beyond Red vs. Blue: The Political Typology.” And yet, disappointingly, it continues to try to place Americans into red and blue boxes: different groups are characterized as “consistently” liberal or conservative, or as groups that “don’t hold consistently liberal or consistently conservative views.” There’s no suggestion that there might be consistent views other than contemporary liberalism and conservatism.

Take the interesting discussion of the “Young Outsiders” group: 

Young Outsiders lean Republican but do not have a strong allegiance to the Republican Party; in fact they tend to dislike both political parties. On many issues, from their support for environmental regulation to their liberal views on social issues, they diverge from traditional GOP orthodoxy. Yet in their support for limited government, Young Outsiders are firmly in the Republicans’ camp….

Young Outsiders share Republicans’ deep opposition to increased government spending on social programs. About three-quarters of Young Outsiders (76%) say the government can’t afford to spend more to help the needy.

However, the Young Outsiders’ generational imprint on issues like homosexuality, diversity and the environment make the Republican Party an uncomfortable fit. In views of societal acceptance of homosexuality, for instance, Young Outsiders have more liberal views than the public overall, and are much more liberal than Republicans….

The Young Outsiders today are very different, as they share the GOP base’s deep skepticism of government programs, but favor a more limited foreign policy, and hold decidedly liberal social views.

As I read this, I keep thinking there’s a word at the tip of my tongue … wait a minute … Oh, I know: The Young Outsiders hold libertarian views. Was that so hard? 

Indeed, they’re not so different from the voters that David Kirby and I identified eight years ago in “The Libertarian Vote”: 14 to 15 percent of the electorate, fiscally conservative, socially liberal, likely but not certain to vote Republican in most elections. Yet in the complete 185-page report, the Pew researchers never associate the word “libertarian” with the Young Outsiders.

Perhaps surprisingly, on page 101, they do identify a different group, the Business Conservatives, as somewhat libertarian:

Business Conservatives are traditional small-government Republicans. Overwhelming percentages think that government is almost always wasteful and it does too much better left to businesses and individuals….

Business Conservatives are more likely than other typology groups to identify as “libertarians,” though just 27% say that term describes them well. Their political values and attitudes do reflect a libertarian philosophy in some respects, though there are important differences as well….

Business Conservatives are not liberal on most social issues, but they are more progressive than Steadfast Conservatives. For instance, while nearly half of Business Conservatives (49%) oppose same-sex marriage, 58% say homosexuality should be accepted rather than discouraged.

That seems a somewhat less libertarian profile than the Young Outsiders, though it would be interesting to know how many Young Outsiders accept the description “libertarian.” (In a question asking “Which of these describes you well?” with “Video or computer gamer, Outdoor person, Libertarian, Religious person, and Focused on health and fitness” as the presumably non-exclusive options.) 

One strange thing about Pew’s ongoing “Political Typology” series is its mutability. Every few years the center does another huge survey and classifies Americans by ideology. But the classifications keep shifting. In 2005 you could see a few libertarian voters in the “Enterprisers” category, and other groups included Upbeats and Disaffecteds. In 2011 the Libertarians got their own category and were characterized as independents, not Republicans. Now the libertarians are invisible again, but can be ferreted out in one of the Republican groups. Either Americans wander all over the map, or Pew researchers just like a little variety.

Washington Post reporter Dan Balz made good use of the Pew poll to explore the meaning of “the political center.” He correctly points out that “the fact that people who may be classified as part of the political middle aren’t necessarily in the middle of the electorate and doesn’t mean they really are moderate in their views.” And he quotes Gary Jacobson, a political science professor at the University of California at San Diego, on the political middle: “It does not form a potentially coherent coalition around which some political entrepreneur might build a centrist party.” All true, partly because people may be “in the middle” between the parties because they’re fiscally conservative and socially liberal (libertarian-leaning) or because they’re fiscally liberal and socially conservative (populist or authoritarian-leaning). 

Balz adopts Pew’s language about “consistent views”: “People who didn’t fall into the polarized extremes sometimes hold views similar to those who are. They’re just not consistent about it.” But maybe they are consistent. Maybe some of the Young Outsiders and Business Conservatives think government coercion tends to be a bad way to handle both personal and economic matters. And maybe some other voters generally trust government more than individuals to manage both economic and social issues. Those aren’t inconsistent views. Indeed, one might argue that it’s the liberals and conservatives – who favor freedom in some areas of life but not others – who are the inconsistent ones.

David Kirby and I have written several studies and numerous shorter pieces on the often-overlooked libertarian voters. Much of that material is collected in the ebook The Libertarian Vote: Swing Voters, Tea Parties, and the Fiscally Conservative, Socially Liberal Center. More recently Kirby wrote about the rising libertarian strength in the Republican Party in this blog post, which might profitably be read in conjunction with Pew’s analysis of Business Conservatives and Young Outsiders.

By the way, based on Pew’s actual questions, which you can answer for yourself, it’s a wonder anyone comes out on the libertarian side. It is, as Matt Welch described an earlier iteration, “a festival of hoo-larious false choices.” But that’s common in polls by political scientists, which typically include a series of questions along the lines of “If people are poor, (a) the government should give them money, or (b) they should quietly accept their fate.”