Commentary

The Libertarian Vote

Journalists these days tell us that we’re a country split down the middle, liberal vs. conservative, red America vs. blue America. Liberals and conservatives read different books, watch different networks, and go to different churches.

In the 2004 election both parties decided their best strategy was not to appeal to moderate voters but rather to find people already inclined to vote for them and get them to the polls.

But in fact a substantial number of Americans don’t fit into that liberal-conservative dichotomy.

Our new research finds that 15 percent of American voters are libertarian rather than liberal or conservative. People generally say that a liberal favors government intervention in the economy and protection of civil liberties, while a conservative is opposed to both economic intervention and the expansion of civil liberties. Libertarians oppose government intrusion into both the economy and personal freedoms.

Our research drew on recent data from the Gallup Poll, the Pew Research Center Typology Survey, and the University of Michigan’s American National Election Studies. We used questions on both economic and social issues that would allow us to distinguish libertarians from liberals and conservatives.

In all of these calculations, we use a broad definition of libertarian. We include both individuals who would self-identify as libertarian and individuals who hold libertarian views but may be unfamiliar with the word. It is clear that many people who hold libertarian views don’t self-identify as libertarians. One Rasmussen poll found that only 2 percent of respondents characterized themselves as libertarians, even though 16 percent held libertarian views on a series of questions.

Gallup consistently finds about 20 percent of respondents to be libertarian. We used a narrower definition, and we found that in 2004 libertarians accounted for 13 percent of the voting-age population and 15 percent of actual voters.

In a closely divided electorate, that’s clearly enough to swing elections.

So how do libertarians vote? Libertarians are increasingly a swing vote, and they are a larger share of the electorate than the fabled “soccer moms” and “NASCAR dads.”

Our data show that libertarians have generally voted Republican—66 percent for Ronald Reagan in 1980, 74 percent for George H. W. Bush in 1988, and 72 percent for George W. Bush in 2000. But they are not diehard Republicans. John Anderson and Libertarian Party candidate Ed Clark got 17 percent of the libertarian vote in 1980, and Ross Perot took 33 percent of the libertarians in 1992.

But for those on the trail of the elusive swing voter, the real news is 2004. The libertarian vote for Bush dropped from 72 to 59 percent, while the libertarian vote for the Democratic nominee almost doubled. It’s not hard to imagine why. Libertarians didn’t like Bush’s record on excessive federal spending, expansion of entitlements, the federal marriage amendment, government spying, and the war in Iraq. Kerry didn’t offer libertarians much except that he was not Bush, but he still narrowed the Republican majority among libertarians from 52 points to 21 points.

We can observe the same libertarian swing in 2004 congressional races. In House races, the libertarian vote for Republican candidates dropped from 73 percent in 2000 to 53 percent in 2004, while the libertarian vote for the Democratic candidates increased from 23 to 44 percent. Senate results were almost identical.

Had President Bush received 72 percent of the libertarian vote, as he did in 2000, he would have had 11.4 million libertarian votes. Instead, he received only 59 percent, or 9.4 million. Had those 2 million voters not switched to Kerry, Bush’s narrow 2004 win would have been a resounding re-election.

The libertarian vote seems to be in play.

Who are the libertarians? They can be found in all parts of the country and all demographic groups, but they are more likely than the average voter to be male, well educated, affluent, and living in the Mountain and Pacific West. They are more likely to own stock than other voters, making them a central part of the “investor class.”

In all the talk about a red-blue divide, libertarian voters have been ignored. That may be in part because libertarians tend to be less involved in organized politics, and because pollsters always ask people to define themselves as liberal or conservative.

We urge the news agencies that commission the 2006 and 2008 exit polls to include a question similar to one used to identify the religious right: “Do you consider yourself to be fiscally conservative and socially liberal, also known as libertarian?”

And libertarians who don’t like the domination of politics by the religious right and the big-government left should do what unions, African Americans, and Christian conservatives have done: organize. Our findings point the way.

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