Segmenting the Libertarian Vote: Tea Partiers, Civil Libertarians, and Libertarian Independents

Last week, I posted data from the latest Reason-Rupe poll showing 77 percent of libertarians supporting Romney—the highest percentage share of the libertarian vote of any Republican presidential candidate since 1980.

Many commenters on Twitter and Facebook were horrified! Surely, many reasoned, this large vote share is a measure of antipathy for Obama rather than affinity for Romney. Others commented that any libertarian supporting Romney doesn’t deserve to be considered a “true” libertarian.

I wanted to reflect on this last comment. Who should count as a libertarian?

In our Cato research, David Boaz, Emily Ekins and I have taken to using a relatively broad definition of a libertarian. Why? Compared to other political words like “capitalism” or “socialism,” fewer know the word “libertarian.” Many who hold libertarian views call themselves “moderate” or “independent” or even “conservative.” Few polls even offer respondents an option to identify themselves as “libertarian.” Those that do reveal confusion about what the word means.

Given all this, we have preferred to probe respondents’ basic background beliefs about the role of government, using questions commonly asked on national polls. Libertarians give different answers than liberals or conservatives. For instance, in the Reason-Rupe poll, we chose three questions to screen libertarians. This gives us a 20 percent group of libertarian likely voters. Other methods and questions produce slightly higher or lower estimates.

But what if you define libertarians more strictly, say, only libertarians who self-identify as such? Or libertarians who also prioritize civil liberties, like support for the legalization of marijuana? Or libertarian independents? Or tea party libertarians? The chart below breaks out these different segments of the broader libertarian vote.* (Thanks again to Emily Ekins for sharing the crosstabs.)

  • Civil liberties libertarians – among libertarians (by our broader definition) who also favor “legalizing small amounts of marijuana for personal use,” Romney support drops to 63 percent. If you add Gary Johnson to the list of candidates, Johnson wins 17 percent, pulling mostly from Obama voters. While many civil libertarians held out hope for Obama, he has continued many of the Bush era policies. For instance, Obama’s Justice Department continues to raid medical marijuana dispensaries in California and support Bush era surveillance policies.
  • Tea party libertarians – the data show that half of tea party is libertarian. Among libertarians who also support the tea party, Romney would win his largest percentage vote share at 93 percent. Though interestingly, tea party libertarians seem as willing as other libertarians to consider voting for a third party candidate Gary Johnson. Johnson wins 13 percent of tea party libertarians, if you add him to the candidate list.
  • Libertarian independents – among libertarians who also consider themselves “independent” (like the voters Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie profile in their book Declaration of Independents), 71 percent would vote for Romney, 23 percent Obama. Interestingly, among libertarian independents, Gary Johnson pulls a larger share away from Obama voters than Romney voters.
  • Self-identified libertarians – respondents who self-identify as “libertarian” are the smallest of these groups at only 4 percent of likely voters. Among self-identified libertarians, Romney would win 66 percent of the vote and Obama 32 percent. Perhaps not surprisingly, self-identified libertarians are most willing to consider voting for a Libertarian Party candidate, with 51 percent saying they’d vote for Johnson, if he is offered him as an option.

So who are the true libertarians? Take your pick!

My own perspective is that the libertarian brand seems broader and more self-aware today than ever before—and that’s a good thing. Ron Paul has certainly played a big role in this. It also may be that in confusing economic times, people are more open to the libertarian ideas long espoused by Cato, Reason, FreedomWorks, and other free-market organizations. In interviews at the grassroots level, Emily and I found more and more voters who act like libertarians, talk like libertarians, and reason like libertarians.

And who knows—as pollsters, strategists, and pundits pick up on the importance of the libertarian vote, more politicians may start to behave like libertarians.

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*Note: One should be cautious when comparing such small subsets of voters, as the statistical margin of error increases, making comparisons problematic. For instance, Reason polled only 787 likely voters with a margin of error +/- 4%. Among the broadest 20 percent of libertarians, the margin of rate increases to +/- 7%. Among self-identified “libertarians,” who represent only 4 percent of likely voters, the margin of error increases to +/- 15%. For instance, given this large margin of error, we cannot say that Romney’s vote share among self-identified libertarians is statistically different than Romney’s vote share among libertarians more broadly. But among self-identified libertarians, the jump in support for Johnson is large enough to be statistically significant.