Rand Paul and the Libertarian Vote

In a series of studies and an ebook, David Kirby and I have been examining the libertarian segment of the American electorate. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is about to test that analysis.

Paul has been arguing that he’s the Republican who can expand the Republican base to include more young people, independents, and even minorities. That was part of the message in the advance video he posted on the web Sunday night. And he argues that a more libertarian approach to such issues as marijuana, criminal justice, mass surveillance, and overseas wars could help do that.

In our studies, we’ve found that a large portion of Americans give libertarian answers to broad values questions. In their 2014 Governance Survey the Gallup Poll found that 24 percent of respondents could be characterized as libertarians (as compared to 27 percent conservative, 21 percent liberal, and 18 percent populist). The percentage has been rising over the past decade:

Gallup Poll libertarians in the electorate

Other studies show different numbers. Our own original study, “The Libertarian Vote,” using stricter criteria, classified 13 to 15 percent of voters as libertarian. A Zogby poll found that when asked if they would define themselves as “fiscally conservative and socially liberal, also known as libertarian,” fully 44 percent – 100 million Americans – accepted the description. That’s a large segment of the electorate not in either party’s camp.

Rand Paul has as strong a record on fiscal conservatism as any Republican candidate, stronger than most. And he seems to be the only one who could make a claim for the “socially liberal” element among libertarian-leaning voters. He’s urged that we stop putting young people in jail for drug use, and he’s shown that he’s willing to use that issue against Jeb Bush and other competitors. He tells young people that “the phone records of United States citizens are none of [the government’s] damn business.”

Of course, like all candidates Paul has a balancing act to put together a winning coalition. He wants to hold on to the libertarian base that gave his father, Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), 23 percent of the New Hampshire primary vote and $40 million in small contributions. But he’ll need more that, and he’ll look for more votes among both the conservative Republican base and non-traditional Republican voters.

His recent statements that gay marriage “offends myself and a lot of other people” and represents a “moral crisis” have disappointed a lot of libertarians (as well as a lot of gay voters, who probably weren’t likely to be in his camp anyway). The bigger question is whether such nods to the religious right will drive away voters he needs, especially the young people and Silicon Valley techies he’s been aggressively courting.

Many people have suggested that Paul’s somewhat non-interventionist foreign policy views won’t sit well with Republican voters. They should read fewer neoconservative pundits and more polls. According to a CBS/New York Times poll last June, 63 percent of Republicans thought the Iraq war wasn’t worth the costs. Paul is likely to be the only one of 10 or so Republican candidates to take that position. As neoconservatives and John McCain beat the drums for military action in Syria in 2013, Paul opposed it. Republicans turned sharply against the idea —  70 percent against in September 2013. Americans, including Republicans, are getting tired of policing the world with endless wars. Interventionist sentiment has ticked up in the past few months as Americans saw ISIS beheading journalists and aid workers on video. But I would predict that 9 months from now, when the voters of Iowa and New Hampshire begin voting for presidential candidates, Americans will be even more weary of nearly 15 years of war, and U.S. intervention will be even less popular than it is now. 

One advantage Paul starts with: political scientist Jason Sorens rates New Hampshire and Nevada, two of the four early primary states, among the six most libertarian states in the union. Iowa and South Carolina, not so much. But a libertarian-leaning Republican can count himself fortunate that early headlines will come out of frugal New Hampshire and fun-loving Nevada.

Despite his views on gay marriage and abortion rights, on a broad range of issues – from taxes and spending to spying, criminal justice, marijuana, and a skeptical approach to unnecessary wars – Rand Paul is going to present Republican voters with the most libertarian platform of any major presidential candidate in memory. If we’re in a libertarian moment, perhaps generated by government overreach in the Bush and Obama years, Paul should benefit. Win or lose, he’s going to give Republicans a clear “more freedom, less government” alternative to both the party establishment and the religious right.