Commentary

Examining the Libertarian Vote in Depth

Libertarian Party candidates may have cost Sens. Jim Talent and Conrad Burns their seats, tipping the Senate to Democratic control. In Montana, the Libertarian candidate got more than 10,000 votes, or 3 percent, while Democrat Jon Tester edged Burns by fewer than 3,000 votes. In Missouri, Claire McCaskill defeated Talent by 41,000 votes, a bit less than the 47,000 Libertarian votes.

This isn’t the first time Republicans have had to worry about losing votes to Libertarian Party candidates. Sens. Harry Reid, Maria Cantwell, and Tim Johnson all won races in which Libertarian candidates got more votes than their winning margin.

But a narrow focus on the Libertarian Party significantly underestimates the role libertarian voters played in 2006. Most voters who hold libertarian views don’t vote for the Libertarian Party. Libertarian voters likely cost Republicans the House and the Senate—also dealing blows to Republican candidates in Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida.

In our study, “The Libertarian Vote,” we analyzed 16 years of polling data and found that libertarians constituted 13 percent of the electorate in 2004. Because libertarians are better educated and more likely to vote, they were 15 percent of actual voters.

Libertarians are broadly defined as people who favor less government in both economic and personal issues. They might be summed up as “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” voters.

In the past, our research shows, most libertarians voted Republican—72 percent for George W. Bush in 2000, for instance, with only 20 percent for Al Gore, and 70 percent for Republican congressional candidates in 2002. But in 2004, presumably turned off by war, wiretapping, and welfare-state spending sprees, they shifted sharply toward the Democrats. John F. Kerry got 38 percent of the libertarian vote. That was a dramatic swing that Republican strategists should have noticed. But somehow the libertarian vote has remained hidden in plain sight.

This year we commissioned a nationwide post-election survey of 1013 voters from Zogby International. We again found that 15 percent of the voters held libertarian views. We also found a further swing of libertarians away from Republican candidates. In 2006, libertarians voted 59-36 for Republican congressional candidates—a 24-point swing from the 2002 mid-term election. To put this in perspective, front-page stories since the election have reported the dramatic 7-point shift of white conservative evangelicals away from the Republicans. The libertarian vote is about the same size as the religious right vote measured in exit polls, and it is subject to swings more than three times as large.

Based on the turnout in 2004, Bush’s margin over Kerry dropped by 4.8 million votes among libertarians. Had he held his libertarian supporters, he would have won a smashing reelection rather than squeaking by in Ohio.

President Bush and the congressional Republicans left no libertarian button unpushed in the past six years: soaring spending, expansion of entitlements, federalization of education, cracking down on state medical marijuana initiatives, Sarbanes-Oxley, gay marriage bans, stem cell research restrictions, wiretapping, incarcerating U.S. citizens without a lawyer, unprecedented executive powers, and of course an unnecessary and apparently futile war. The striking thing may be that after all that, Democrats still looked worse to a majority of libertarians.

Because libertarians tend to be younger and better educated than the average voter, they’re not going away. They’re an appealing target for Democrats, but they are essential to future Republican successes. Republicans can win the South without libertarians. But this was the year that New Hampshire and the Mountain West turned purple if not blue, and libertarians played a big role there. New Hampshire may be the most libertarian state in the country; this year both the state’s Republican congressmen lost.

Meanwhile, in the Goldwateresque, “leave us alone” Mountain West, Republicans not only lost the Montana Senate seat; they also lost the governorship of Colorado, two House seats in Arizona, and one in Colorado. They had close calls in the Arizona Senate race and House races in Idaho, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, and Dick Cheney’s Wyoming. In libertarian Nevada, the Republican candidate for governor won less than a majority against a Democrat who promised to keep the government out of guns, abortion, and gay marriage. Arizona also became the first state to vote down a state constitutional amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman.

Presidential candidates might note that even in Iowa libertarians helped vote out a Republican congressman who championed the Internet gambling ban.

If Republicans can’t win New Hampshire and the Mountain West, they can’t win a national majority. And they can’t win those states without libertarian votes. They’re going to need to stop scaring libertarian, centrist, and independent voters with their social-conservative obsessions and become once again the party of fiscal responsibility. In a Newsweek poll just before the election, 47 percent of respondents said they trusted the Democrats more on “federal spending and the deficit,” compared to just 31 percent who trusted the Republicans. That’s not Ronald Reagan’s Republican Party.

One more bit from our post-election Zogby poll: We asked voters if they considered themselves “fiscally conservative and socially liberal.” A whopping 59 percent said they did. When we added to the question “also known as libertarian,” 44 percent still claimed that description. That’s too many voters for any party to ignore.

Rep. Barbara Cubin (R-WY) told her Libertarian challenger after a debate, “If you weren’t sitting in that [wheel]chair, I’d slap you.” It took 10 days to certify her re-election, perhaps because that Libertarian took more than 7,000 votes. A better strategy for her and other Republicans would be to try to woo libertarians back.

David Kirby is executive director of America’s Future Foundation. David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute. They are coauthors of a new Cato Institute study, “The Libertarian Vote.”