Libertarian Voters and the Libertarian Party

The Libertarian Party is meeting in Denver to nominate a presidential candidate. Vying for the nomination are a former Democratic senator, a former Republican congressman, the author of the book Millionaire Republican, and a number of long-time party activists.

The party’s most successful presidential candidate was Ed Clark, who got 921,000 votes, about 1.1 percent, in 1980. Since then LP candidates have hovered around 400,000 votes.

Ron Paul’s surprising campaign this year and the increasing evidence about libertarian voters have generated more interest in the Libertarian Party nomination than usual, as witness the large and broad field of candidates.

So what’s the relationship between libertarian voters and the Libertarian Party? First, of course, members of the Libertarian Party are much more committed to the libertarian philosophy than are the libertarian-leaning voters David Kirby and I have identified in recent research. Our research indicates that 15 to 20 percent of American voters hold broadly libertarian views, yet the Libertarian Party has only once broken 1 percent in a presidential race. (More people have voted for LP candidates for lesser offices. The LP’s website claims that Libertarian candidates won 5.4 million votes in 1996.)

Libertarian voters have been more willing than other voters to vote for third-party candidates. In Beyond Liberal and Conservative, William S. Maddox and Stuart A. Lilie found that libertarians gave 17 percent of their votes to “other” candidates in 1980, presumably independent John B. Anderson and Libertarian Clark, though Clark and Anderson received only about 8 percent of the national total. In 1992 libertarians gave Ross Perot 33 percent, knocking George H. W. Bush from 74 percent of the libertarian vote in 1988 to 35 percent in 1992. Again in 1996, libertarians voted more heavily for Perot (13 percent) than did the national electorate (8 percent). So libertarian-leaning voters seem open to voting for third-party candidates, and thus they should be fertile ground for the Libertarian Party.

I always wondered if most votes for Libertarian candidates were really just “none of the above” votes, cast not by libertarians or even libertarian leaners but just by disgruntled or flippant voters. Some evidence from our Zogby survey in 2006 suggests otherwise. David Kirby and I discussed some of the results from that survey in Cato Policy Report in January 2007.

We had previously used three questions from the American National Election Studies polls to define “libertarian voters.” The week of the 2006 election we commissioned Zogby International to ask the same three questions to 1,012 actual (reported) voters in the election. Once again, we found that 15 percent of them could be defined as libertarian. But only 9 percent of those voters identified themselves as libertarian; most called themselves moderate or conservative.

In previously unpublished results, Zogby asked the same questions to a much larger Internet sample. In that panel, 17.6 percent of the libertarians identified themselves as such. And 8.6 percent identified themselves as supporters of the Libertarian Party.

My “none of the above hypothesis” seemed to be disproved by results from an over-sample in Arizona. There, 15 percent of our Internet sample gave libertarian answers to our three questions. And of those, 7 percent said they had voted for the Libertarian candidate for U.S. Senate, and 23 percent had voted for the Libertarian candidate for governor. Of the total sample, 57 percent of the votes for the Libertarian Senate candidate came from libertarian voters, and 68 percent of the votes for the Libertarian candidate for governor came from libertarians. So in fact it appears, in the one case for which we have evidence, that most people who vote for Libertarian Party candidates in fact hold libertarian views.

So the challenge for this year’s Libertarian nominee is this: There’s widespread disillusionment with both parties. Ron Paul tapped into some of that in the Republican primaries and demonstrated that a libertarian candidate could raise a lot of money. Some 15 to 20 percent of the voters — 18 million to 24 million voters in 2004 — hold libertarian views. Those libertarian voters have previously demonstrated their willingness to vote for third-party candidates. In 2006, they swung sharply away from Republican candidates, yet the leading Democrats aren’t offering much to libertarian-minded voters. Perhaps most strikingly, 44 percent of voters said yes to Zogby’s question, “Would you describe yourself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal, also known as libertarian?” So there would seem to be a huge potential audience for a Libertarian candidate who could raise money, get media attention, create online buzz, and present a compelling and articulate case for peace, freedom, and limited government.