Forget Soccer Moms and NASCAR Dads: Libertarians May Decide the Mid-Terms

Libertarian vote is becoming an influential bloc in a divided electorate

October 12, 2006

Media Contact: (202) 789-5200

WASHINGTON — Election strategists who focus just on getting out party loyalists but ignore libertarian voters in the closely fought mid-term congressional elections will do so at their peril, warns a new Cato Institute study that finds an estimated 13 percent of the electorate is libertarian.

In the study released today, “The Libertarian Vote,” authors David Boaz, Cato’s executive vice president, and David Kirby, executive director of America’s Future Foundation, find that libertarians are growing in number and becoming increasingly swing voters. “They are a larger share of the electorate than the fabled ‘soccer moms’ and ‘NASCAR dads,’” they write.

Analyzing past polling data and election exit surveys conducted by Gallup, the Pew Center and the American National Election Studies, the authors argue: “For those on the trail of the elusive swing voter, it may be most notable that the libertarian vote shifted sharply in 2004.” Self-described libertarians, and those voters who could be classified as libertarian because of an aversion to government involvement in both economic and personal matters, cooled significantly on Republican candidates.

“Libertarians preferred George W. Bush over Al Gore by 72 percent to 20 percent, but Bush’s margin dropped in 2004 to 59-38 over John Kerry. Congressional voting showed a similar swing from 2002 to 2004,” observe Boaz and Kirby. In House races, the libertarian vote for Republicans dropped from 73 percent in 2000 to 53 percent in 2004, while the libertarian vote for Democrats increased from 23 to 44 percent. There was a similar swing in Senate races.

According to the authors, libertarians apparently became disillusioned with GOP overspending, social intolerance, civil liberties infringements, and the floundering war in Iraq. “If that trend continues into 2006 and 2008, Republicans will lose elections they would otherwise win,” they write.

The study shows that libertarians are likely to take on an increasingly significant swing role in future elections and will become more influential, if elections continue to be as close as recent presidential and congressional votes. The evidence suggests that the libertarian vote has grown by about 4 percent since 1992, and the authors point out that if Bush had not lost more than two million libertarian votes in 2004, his victory would have been a resounding one; likewise a further inroad into the libertarian vote in states like Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, would have handed Kerry the presidency.

In groundbreaking work, the authors flesh out the major characteristics of libertarians. They say they are more likely to be male and affluent and to live in the West. They are less religious than conservatives; although slightly more religious than liberals. They are as likely as liberals to be college educated. Libertarians are more likely than liberals or conservatives to be young, suggesting the likelihood of growing libertarian strength.

The study concludes: “Conservatives resist cultural change and personal liberation; liberals resist economic dynamism and globalization. Libertarians embrace both. The political party that comes to terms with than can win the next generation.”

Policy Analysis # 580