Tag: libertarian vote

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.”

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.

Are Libertarians a Political Force?

Some lively debate this week on our papers on the libertarian vote and on the broader questions of how many libertarians there are, whether they’re a voting bloc, and whether they might be targets for both parties. Ed Kilgore, managing editor of The Democratic Strategist, wrote in the New Republic that any possible alliance between liberals and libertarians is shown to have gone by the wayside in Cato’s new paper, “The Libertarian Vote in the Age of Obama,” even though, he says, “ modern liberals and libertarians share common ideological roots in eighteenth and nineteenth century Anglo-American liberalism, … these groups have a sociocultural affinity,” and “New Democrats” are more sympathetic to libertarian arguments on technological progress and free trade. But they just can’t work together in the age of Obama.

In National Review John Zogby and Zeljka Buturovic present some interesting data and conclude, “For the most part, libertarians are a fraction within the conservative coalition — not a stand-alone movement.” They find that only 2 percent of poll respondents claim the label “libertarian,” and those people rate themselves firmly to the center-right on a 9-point scale. At the Corner I respond:

“Libertarian” is an unfamiliar word to most people, even people who actually hold broadly libertarian views. Rasmussen found that 4 percent identified themselves that way, and a Center for American Progress poll found 6 percent — but 13 percent of young people.

But there are other ways to measure libertarian sentiment….we found that 14 percent gave libertarian answers to all three questions. Gallup asks two questions — one on the size of government, one on “promoting traditional values” — every year and finds about 20 percent of respondents give libertarian answers to both questions (23 percent in 2009)….

On the second point, yes, we’ve found that the 14-15 percent of libertarian voters we identify usually vote about 70 percent Republican. But not always. … In 2004 George W. Bush got only 59 percent of the libertarian vote, and in 2006 libertarians gave only about 54 percent of their votes to Republican congressional candidates. … 

From the perspective of politicians and their advisers, I think it’s fair to say that these libertarians are a not-entirely-reliable part of the broad Republican constituency. After the 2006 election … the underreported story was a 24-point swing of libertarians away from Republican congressional candidates between 2002 and 2006. That’s a point Republican strategists — and Democrats — ought to ponder.

And there’s a footnote that might become main text in the next few years: In 2008, even as libertarians generally returned to the 70 percent Republican fold, young libertarians (18 to 29) gave a majority of their votes to Obama. Maybe these younger voters will come to their senses. Or maybe the Republican brand just isn’t very appealing to young voters (who are, for instance, strongly supportive of gay marriage and overwhelmingly supportive of gays in the military).

Find more data on the libertarian vote in the paper David Kirby and I did in 2006, “The Libertarian Vote,” or in our just-published paper, “The Libertarian Vote in the Age of Obama,” or in this possibly corroborating data from the Tarrance Group, which found that 23 percent of respondents described themselves as fiscally conservative but liberal or moderate on social issues.