The Gallup Poll has a new estimate of the number of libertarians in the American electorate. In their 2015 Governance survey they find that 27 percent of respondents can be characterized as libertarians, the highest number it has ever found. The latest results also make libertarians the largest group in the electorate, as compared to 26 percent conservative, 23 percent liberal, and 15 percent populist.
For more than a dozen years now, the Gallup Poll has been using two questions to categorize respondents by ideology:
- Some people think the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses. Others think that government should do more to solve our country’s problems. Which comes closer to your own view?
- Some people think the government should promote traditional values in our society. Others think the government should not favor any particular set of values. Which comes closer to your own view?
Combining the responses to those two questions, Gallup found the ideological breakdown of the public shown below. With these two broad questions, Gallup consistently finds about 20 percent of respondents to be libertarian, and the number has been rising
Two years ago David Kirby found that libertarians made up an even larger portion of the Republican party.
So why isn't all this supposed libertarian sentiment being reflected in candidates and elections? There have been plenty of analyses in the past week, including my own, about why Rand Paul didn't attract this potentially large bloc of libertarian voters. Maybe people don't see issues as equally salient; some libertarians may wish that Republicans weren't so socially reactionary, but still vote Republican on the basis of economic issues. Some, as Lionel Shriver writes in the New York Times, feel "forced to vote Democratic because the Republican social agenda is retrograde, if not lunatic — at the cost of unwillingly endorsing cumbersome high-tax solutions to this country’s problems."
For now I just want to note that there are indeed a lot of voters who don't fit neatly into the red and blue boxes. The word “libertarian” isn’t well known, so pollsters don’t find many people claiming to be libertarian. And usually they don’t ask. But a large portion of Americans hold generally libertarian views – views that might be described as fiscally conservative and socially liberal.
David Brooks wrote recently that the swing voters in 2016 will be people who don’t think big government is the path to economic growth and don’t know why a presidential candidate would open his campaign at Jerry Falwell’s university. Those are the voters who push American politics in a libertarian direction. David Bier and Daniel Bier wrote last summer about how many policy issues show a libertarian trend over the past 30 years. Find a colorful chart illustrating their findings here.
Politics is often frustrating for libertarians, never more so than during this presidential election when the leading presidential candidates seem to be a protectionist nationalist with a penchant for insult, a self-proclaimed socialist, and a woman who proudly calls herself a "government junkie." But polls show libertarian instincts in the electorate, just waiting for candidates who can speak to them.
Read more about the libertarian vote in our original study or in our 2012 ebook.