Tag: libertarian vote

Poll Finds a Libertarian Shift

Polling wizard Nate Silver of the New York Times today points to a couple of poll questions that David Kirby and I have often employed and finds some welcome new results, along with a great graph:

Since 1993, CNN has regularly asked a pair of questions that touch on libertarian views of the economy and society:

Some people think the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses. Others think that government should do more to solve our country’s problems. Which comes closer to your own view?

Some people think the government should promote traditional values in our society. Others think the government should not favor any particular set of values. Which comes closer to your own view?

A libertarian, someone who believes that the government is best when it governs least, would typically choose the first view in the first question and the second view in the second.

In the polls, the responses to both questions had been fairly steady for many years. The economic question has showed little long-term trend, although tolerance for governmental intervention rose following the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The social libertarian viewpoint — that government should not favor any particular set of values — has gained a couple of percentage points since the 1990s but not more than that.

But in CNN’s latest version of the poll, conducted earlier this month, the libertarian response to both questions reached all-time highs. Some 63 percent of respondents said government was doing too much — up from 61 percent in 2010 and 52 percent in 2008 — while 50 percent said government should not favor any particular set of values, up from 44 percent in 2010 and 41 percent in 2008. (It was the first time that answer won a plurality in CNN’s poll.)

And then he offers this graph:

Check out that green line! Kirby and I used those same two poll questions in our studies beginning with “The Libertarian Vote” (see p. 9). Like Gallup, we combined responses to the two questions in a matrix, finding in 2009 (in “The Libertarian Vote in the Age of Obama”) that 23 percent of the public held libertarian views. Adding them, as Silver has done, seems much more fun.

Fiscally Conservative, Socially Liberal Virginians

The Washington Post just did a major poll of Virginians and tantalizingly included this note in writing up the results:

In contrast to four years ago, about as many Virginians consider themselves to be liberal on social matters as call themselves conservative. Fiscal conservatism is on the rise, but on these social issues, it’s liberalism that’s ticked higher.

But those questions were not included in the published data. Thanks to the generosity of Post polling director Jon Cohen, I can report that the percentage of Virginians who said they were socially liberal or moderate and fiscally conservative went from 16 in 2007 to 23 in the latest poll. This reflects a small increase in the number of social liberals and a larger increase in the number of fiscal conservatives. And here are the tables on those questions:

We’ve written about fiscally conservative, socially liberal voters before, notably here and here, and in relation to Virginia and in the Republican party. Apparently when you ask people, “Would you describe yourself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal?”, you get a higher percentage than when you ask the questions separately, as the Post did. When the Zogby Poll asked that question to actual voters in 2006, fully 59 percent said yes. Broader background on the “libertarian vote” here.

The Libertarian Trend

There’s been lots of talk lately about a turn to the right in American politics. President Obama’s declining poll numbers, the sharp rise in opposition to his health-care plan during 2009, the growth of the grass-roots Tea Party movement, and the polls predicting a Republican takeover of the House of Representatives all point to a resurgence of conservatism in the electorate. But as I noted last year, there are also trends in the direction of social tolerance these days. Some indeed have described current political trends as a libertarian resurgence.

California voters are getting ready to vote on a marijuana legalization initiative, and polls show rising support. The New York Times points to other signs of change on the marijuana front: Pot has already become essentially legal for anyone in California who can tell a medical marijuana clinic that it would make him feel better. Attorney General Eric Holder has said that the federal government would back off its attempt to enforce the federal laws against medical marijuana in the 13 states that have legalized medical use. The threats to prosecute Michael Phelps for a bong hit were widely ridiculed. Those developments have led Andrew Sullivan, Jacob Weisberg, and CBS News to speculate about a “tipping point” for change — at last — in marijuana prohibition.

Meanwhile, TPM and AOL’s PoliticsDaily also see a tipping point for marriage equality. A majority of New Yorkers now join Gov. David Paterson in supporting same-sex marriage. That same ABC News/Washington Post poll finds that “in 2004, just 32 percent of Americans favored gay marriage, with 62 percent opposed. Now 49 percent support it versus 46 percent opposed — the first time in ABC/Post polls that supporters have outnumbered opponents.” Since the passage of California’s Proposition 8 in 2008, several states and the District of Columbia have granted marriage rights to same-sex couples.

This chart, prepared for me by Garrett Reim, shows recent trends in public opinion polls on several issues – support for smaller government, marriage equality, and marijuana legalization along with opposition to President Obama’s health care plan and to the job the president is doing. The latter two have moved more sharply, but all five lines move at least marginally in a libertarian direction:

Longer-term charts would show more of a trend on marijuana and marriage. See Nate Silver’s chart on rising support for marijuana legalization over the past 20 years. And here are three depictions of rising support for marriage equality over the past 15 to 20 years.

As some analysts have noticed, what’s going on in American politics is a shift in a libertarian direction. This chart provides some more evidence.

Where Are the Libertarians?

Jason Sorens, political scientist and founder of the Free State Project, has a series of posts at Pileus trying to estimate  the size of the “liberty constituency” in each state. Using statistical techniques well beyond my high-school algebra, he first calculated the support for Ron Paul’s presidential campaign in each state if conditions were equal. It may not be terribly surprising that by those calculations Ron Paul’s best states – and therefore, putatively, the states with the largest “liberty constituency” – were New Hampshire, Idaho, South Dakota, and Washington. In fifth place, presumably reflecting those dreaded “Beltway libertarians,” was the District of Columbia.

In part 2 Sorens used principal component analysis (PCA) to see whether a libertarian constituency exists as a concept and is distinct from mere liberalism-conservatism. Using eight variables drawn from election results and opinion surveys, he combines four of them to estimate “size of libertarian constituency,” and four others to estimate “size of liberal constituency,” the inverse of which would be the size of the state’s conservative constituency. That gives him this chart:

Sorens points out, “Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Alaska are the most conservative states, while Vermont, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Connecticut, and New York are the most liberal states. The states with the most libertarians are Montana, Alaska, New Hampshire, and Idaho, with Nevada, Indiana, Georgia, Wyoming, Washington, Oregon, Utah, California, and Colorado following.” The most liberal states don’t seem to have many libertarians. Of the conservative states, Idaho and Alaska have a lot of libertarians, Oklahoma and Nebraska not so much. (I suspect that a more mainstream libertarian-leaning candidate, a small-government, free-trade, skeptical-of-foreign-intervention candidate like Nebraska’s own Chuck Hagel, might have more appeal to the sober burghers of the Cornhusker State than the more provocative candidacies of Ron Paul and the Libertarian Party.)

Thanks to longtime libertarian Bill Westmiller, I can add some historical perspective to this material. In 1980 Libertarian Party presidential candidate Ed Clark got just over 1 percent of the national vote, which gives us more Libertarian voters to analyze than the recent results that Sorens was using. Those results show far more Libertarian voters per capita in Alaska, where the Libertarian Party had a real party organization and where Clark campaigned heavily, than anywhere else. After that came the rugged individualist states of the mountain West – Montana, Wyoming, Oregon, Colorado, Arizona, Idaho, and Nevada.

In 1980 you found the fewest Libertarian voters in the South, notably in Kentucky, where I grew up, and Tennessee, where I went to college. The South doesn’t seem to have improved much in 30 years. Georgia moved up from middle of the pack to one of the larger concentrations of libertarian voters; Sorens attributes that to the influence of bigfoot Atlanta radio host Neal Boortz. And of course the biggest point to remember about this chart – aside from its being a record of votes cast 30 years ago – is that the number of people who will vote for a third-party candidate is far less than the number who would vote for a major-party candidate with the same ideas.

Here’s one question: I think of New Hampshire as one of the most libertarian states, and Sorens’s “Liberty Bloc” calculations seem to confirm that. But in 1980 Clark got only half his national percentage there. What has changed in New Hampshire?

Sorens will go on to discuss whether libertarians “actually influence the overall policy regime of a state,” no doubt drawing on his paper with William Ruger, “Freedom in the 50 States: An Index of Personal and Economic Freedom.” And of course on these topics I recommend my own studies with David Kirby, “The Libertarian Vote” and “The Libertarian Vote in the Age of Obama.”

Libertarianism Hits the Big Time

Michael Crowley, late of the New Republic and now with Time magazine, writes thoughtfully about Ron Paul, Rand Paul, and libertarianism. Crowley notes that Rand Paul, “more politically flexible than his father,” has plenty of unlibertarian positions. But both of them are tapping into a real strain in contemporary politics:

But he, like his father, also knows well that a genuine libertarian impulse is astir in America…. polls show an uptick in both social permissiveness and skepticism of government intervention….[Ron Paul] has already waited a long time — and it appears the country is moving his way.

This is a current trend, but it’s also deeply rooted in the American political culture. As David Kirby and I wrote in “The Libertarian Vote”:

It’s no surprise that many Americans hold libertarian attitudes since America is, after all, a country fundamentally shaped by libertarian values and attitudes. In their book It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States, Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marx write, “The American ideology, stemming from the [American] Revolution, can be subsumed in five words: antistatism, laissez-faire, individualism, populism, and egalitarianism.”… Richard Hofstadter wrote: “The fierceness of the political struggles in American history has often been misleading; for the range of vision embraced by the primary contestants in the major parties has always been bounded by the horizons of property and enterprise. However much at odds on specific issues, the major political traditions have shared a belief in the rights of property, the philosophy of economic individualism, the values of competition; they have accepted the economic virtues of capitalist culture.”… McClosky and Zaller sum up a key theme of the American ethos in classic libertarian language: “The principle here is that every person is free to act as he pleases, so long as his exercise of freedom does not violate the equal rights of others.”…

Some people recognize but bemoan our libertarian ethos. Professors Cass Sunstein and Stephen Holmes complain that libertarian ideas are “astonishingly widespread in American culture.”

Much political change in America occurs within those guiding principles. Even our radicals, Lipset and Marks note, have tended to be libertarian rather than collectivist. America is a “country of classical liberalism, antistatism, libertarianism, and loose class structure,” which helps to explain the failure of class-conscious politics in the United States. McClosky and Zaller argue that many of the changes of the 1960s involved “efforts to extend certain values of the traditionalethos to new groups and new contexts”—such as equal rights for women, blacks, and gays; anti-war and free speech protests; and the “do your own thing” ethosof the so-called counterculture, which may in fact have had more in common with the individualist American culture than was recognized at the time.

In a broadly libertarian country most voters and movements have agreed on the fundamentals of classical liberalism or libertarianism: free speech, religious freedom, equality before the law, private property, free markets, limited government, and individual rights. The broad acceptance of those values means that American liberals and conservatives are fighting within a libertarian consensus. We sometimes forget just how libertarian the American political culture is.

And of course American politics and policy deviate a great deal from those fundamental principles, which leaves libertarians feeling frustrated, even angry, and seeming extreme or radical to journalists and others. But as Conor Friedersdorf just wrote in Time’s longtime rival, Newsweek, the media have a bias toward the status quo and establishment politicians, even when current policies and the proposals of elected officials are at least as extreme as libertarian ideas:

If returning to the gold standard is unthinkable, is it not just as extreme that President Obama claims an unchecked power to assassinate, without due process, any American living abroad whom he designates as an enemy combatant? Or that Joe Lieberman wants to strip Americans of their citizenship not when they are convicted of terrorist activities, but upon their being accused and designated as enemy combatants? In domestic politics, policy experts scoff at ethanol subsidies, the home-mortgage-interest tax deduction, and rent control, but the mainstream politicians who advocate those policies are treated as perfectly serious people.

And Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International, made the point a dozen years ago in a review of Charles Murray’s book What It Means to Be a Libertarian (in the Public Interest, not online)

The reason that libertarians seem extreme and odd is not that they are a furious minority, angry at a world that seems to have passed them by, but rather the opposite. They are heirs to a tradition that has changed the world. Consider what classical liberalism stood for in the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was against the power of the church and for the power of the market; it was against the privileges of kings and aristocracies and for dignity of the middle class; it was against a society dominated by status and land and in favor of one based on markets and merit; it was opposed to religion and custom and in favor of science and secularism; it was for national self-determination and against empires; it was for freedom of speech and against censorship; it was for free trade and against mercantilism. Above all, it was for the rights of the individual and against the power of the church and the state….

The reason that libertarianism seems narrow and naive is that having won 80 percent of the struggles it has fought over the last two centuries, it is now forced to define itself wholly in terms of the last 20 percent. Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice if you were in Prussia in the 1850s, but in America in the 1960s? Libertarianism has become extreme because the world has left it no recourse.

Now, I don’t feel furious, angry, or extreme. I think that libertarianism is the philosophy of the American revolution, the basic ideology of America, and indeed the foundation of Western civilization. The concept of personal and economic freedom – giving people more power to pursue happiness in their own way by restricting the size, scope, and power of government – is not extreme. Nor is it reactionary. In fact, it is the direction in which civilization has been heading, with many digressions and blind alleys, since the liberal revolution of the 17th century. I am a progressive. I believe that the simple, timeless principles of the American Revolution – individual liberty, limited government, and free markets – are even more powerful and more important in the world of instant communication, global markets, and unprecedented access to information than Jefferson or Madison could have imagined.  Libertarianism is not just a framework for utopia, it is the indispensable framework for the future.

Mark Penn Mourns the Plight of Libertarian Voters

Mark Penn, who has been a pollster and consultant to the presidential campaigns of Bill and Hillary Clinton, John Anderson, and Ross Perot, writes about political discontent in Britain and the United States in the Washington Post today, noting that in this country

socially liberal and fiscally conservative voters believe, especially after what happened with health care, that they have no clear choice: They must sign on with the religious right or the economic left.

Exactly the point that David Kirby and I have been making in our studies on the libertarian vote, as in the first line of this January study:

Libertarian — or fiscally conservative, socially liberal — voters are often torn between their aversions to the Republicans’ social conservatism and the Democrats’ fiscal irresponsibility.

Libertarian-leaning voters are a large swing vote, and they do indeed find problems with both parties. As parties increasingly cater to their “base,” libertarian-leaning independents find themselves dissatisfied with both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans. We noted in our first study, “The Libertarian Vote,” that according to the 2004 exit polls, “28 million Bush voters support[ed] either marriage or civil unions for same-sex couples” and “17 million Kerry voters … thought government should not … ‘do more to solve problems.’” That was 45 million voters who didn’t seem to fit neatly into the red-blue, liberal-conservative dichotomy.

But Penn is on less solid ground in his next line:

It is just a matter of time before they demand their own movement or party.

Movement, maybe. The Ron Paul campaign certainly appealed to antiwar, small-government voters. And the Tea Party movement focuses almost exclusively on economic and constitutional issues, making it more appealing to libertarians than typical conservative organizations. Meanwhile, as the Tea Party opposition to the Democrats’ big-government opposition surges, so does progress toward marriage equality and rational drug reform. Maybe those various libertarian-leaning groups will find each other. But a new party is a much bigger challenge. It’s no accident that the only third party that achieved even modest success in recent history was headed a billionaire who was also a celebrity, Ross Perot. Ballot access laws, campaign finance restrictions, exclusion of third-party candidates from debates and media coverage, single-member districts – all make it difficult to start a successful third party. It may also be the case that moderates, who tend not to be very angry, and libertarians, who don’t really much like politics, are particularly ill suited to undertake the massive amount of work that a new party requires.

But Penn is absolutely right to point to the plight of “socially liberal and fiscally conservative voters,” forced in every election to ”sign on with the religious right or the economic left.”