January 21, 2010
The Libertarian Vote in the Age of Obama
by David Kirby and David Boaz
socially liberal," and 44 percent agreed that they
Libertarian--or fiscally conservative, socially
were "fiscally conservative and socially liberal,
liberal--voters are often torn between their aver-
also known as libertarian."
sions to the Republicans' social conservatism and
Libertarians shifted back to the Republican col-
the Democrats' fiscal irresponsibility. Yet libertar-
umn in 2008, supporting John McCain over Barack
ians rarely factor into pundits' and pollsters'
Obama by 71 to 27 percent. Although many liber-
tarian intellectuals had a real antipathy to McCain,
In 2004 libertarians swung away from Bush,
the typical libertarian voter saw McCain as an inde-
anticipating the Democratic victories of 2006. In
pendent, straight-talking maverick who was a
2008, according to new data in this paper, liber-
strong opponent of earmarks and pork-barrel
tarians voted against Barack Obama. Libertarians
spending and never talked about social issues. Also,
seem to be a lead indicator of trends in centrist,
the prospect of a Democratic president working
independent-minded voters. If libertarians con-
with a Democratic majority in Congress at the
tinue to lead the independents away from Obama,
height of a financial crisis scared libertarian voters.
Democrats will lose 2010 midterm elections they
Younger libertarians were more supportive of
would otherwise win.
Obama. Pro-life libertarians are more Republican
We find that 14 percent of American voters
than pro-choice libertarians.
can be classified as libertarian. Other surveys
Few of the voters we describe as libertarian
find a larger number of people who hold views
identify themselves as such. But the Ron Paul
that are neither consistently liberal nor conserv-
campaign and the burgeoning opposition to
ative but are best described as libertarian. A 2009
President Obama's big-government agenda sug-
Gallup poll found that 23 percent held libertari-
gest that small-government voters may be easier
an views. A Zogby poll found that 59 percent
to organize than they have been in the past.
considered themselves "fiscally conservative and
David Kirby is an associate policy analyst, and David Boaz is executive vice president, at the Cato Institute. They
are coauthors of "The Libertarian Vote," Cato Institute Policy Analysis no. 580.