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.