October 20, 2006 3:59PM

Libertarian Voters Hit the Headlines

Suddenly, a week after David Kirby and I published our study "The Libertarian Vote," journalists and politicos are taking note of libertarian voters, along with disgruntled economic conservatives and social conservatives. In a story on our study, The Economist writes:

AMERICA may be the land of the free, but Americans who favour both economic and social freedom have no political home. The Republican Party espouses economic freedom — ie, low taxes and minimal regulation — but is less keen on sexual liberation. The Democratic Party champions the right of homosexuals to do their thing without government interference, but not businesspeople. Libertarian voters have an unhappy choice. Assuming they opt for one of the two main parties, they can vote to kick the state out of the bedroom, or the boardroom, but not both.

And that, of course, is why our study found that the 15 percent of American voters who are libertarian swung sharply toward the Democrats in 2004. Although they usually vote Republican, they're not committed to the GOP. And they realized that the Bush Republicans have not been delivering fiscal responsibility, federalism, or any of the other policies that libertarians and other voters expect from Republicans.

If you think I have a starry-eyed view of some halcyon past when the Republican Party actually believed in small government, check out this Washington Post article that says that gays "hold a tenuous, complicated spot within the ranks of the GOP, whose earlier libertarian, live-and-let-live values have been ground down by the wedge issue of opposition to gay rights."

Meanwhile, faced with impending doom, Republicans and conservatives are taking pot shots at each other in the media. A front-page article in today's New York Times, triggered by my former colleague Ryan Sager and his book The Elephant in the Room, features former House majority leader Dick Armey complaining about the religious right: “The Republicans are talking about things like gay marriage and so forth, and the Democrats are talking about the things people care about, like how do I pay my bills?” In a newsletter from James Dobson's Focus on the Family, Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) called Armey’s comments “disgusting” and insulting to “the many Christians around the United States who devoutly hold conservative moral beliefs.”

Neoconservative Bill Kristol scoffs at the suggestion that massive overspending is turning off economically conservative voters. American Conservative Union chairman David Keene responds, “The principal sin of the neoconservatives is overbearing arrogance. It is not so much that they have been wrong. It is that nobody has ever convinced them that they have been wrong."

Over at the Washington Times, Ralph Hallow quotes Grover Norquist and Rush Limbaugh denouncing conservative "whining" about the failures of Bush and the Republican Congress. He also quotes a response from me: "The war looks like a mistake, and Republicans have been spending worse than Democrats. Both libertarians and social conservatives are disgusted with the Cunningham, Abramoff and Foley scandals. They're thinking that maybe the Republicans have been in power too long and don't deserve another term."

And a CNSNews story about the "libertarian vote" study quotes a rebuttal from Josh Holmes of the Republican National Committee: "If you believe in limited government, if you believe in free and fair markets, and you believe the American people are capable of accomplishing great things without the government doing it for us, the Republican Party is the only choice. When Democrat leaders talk about rolling back tax cuts, nationalizing the health care system, and drastically increasing domestic spending, they are not a viable option for most libertarian voters."

He's got a point. Democrats aren't trying very hard to pick up the disgruntled libertarians. But Holmes is trying to persuade us that we still live in that Republican dream world when the party was characterized by "libertarian, live-and-let-live values," instead of the actual world of unnecessary wars, gay marriage bans, 50 percent spending increases, and the biggest expansion of entitlements in 50 years.

Both parties will try to turn out their base voters this year by demonizing the other side, and both have a lot of material to work with. For many voters, it will work. They will decide that "we can't let the other side win because then we'll have higher taxes/fiscal irresponsibility/appeasement of terrorists/failing wars/extreme social conservatism/out-of-control leftwing judges."

But others are going to see through that, and the real problem for Republicans this year is how many potential Republican voters really don't feel excited about voting Republican. It's always easiest not to vote, so you have to be pretty committed to actually get to the polling place and stand in line. In this year's election, Democrats are outraged and optimistic, so they're more likely to vote. Republicans are embarrassed, ashamed, and disgusted, so a lot of them will just not find the energy to get to the polls. And if libertarian voters keep swinging away from the Republicans, then Republicans are going to lose seats even in places like the Mountain West that they should be able to count on.