August 25, 2017 9:37AM

Results from the 2017 Libertarianism vs. Conservatism Post‐​Debate Attendee Survey

As part of a yearly tradition, the Cato Institute and Heritage Foundation co-host a debate in which interns of both think tanks debate whether conservatism or libertarianism is a better ideology. Following this year’s debate, the Cato Institute conducted a post-debate survey of attendees to ask who they thought won the debate and what they believe about a variety of public policy and social issues.

The survey finds that millennial conservative and libertarian attendees agree on matters of free speech and religious liberty, the size and scope of government, regulation, health care and what to do about climate change. However, striking differences emerge between the two groups particularly on matters of immigration, the temporary Muslim travel ban, gender pronouns and bathrooms, government’s response to opioid addiction, the death penalty, religious values in government, domestic surveillance, foreign policy, as well as evaluations of the Trump administration.

Full LvCDebate Attendee Survey results found here

Priority Differences and Similarities

Examining conservative and libertarian millennial attendees’ issue priorities offers a quick overview of their similarities and differences. The survey asked attendees how concerned they are about 21 different issues:

Libertarian and Millennial Priority Differences and Similarities


As the chart shows above, conservative millennials are more concerned about morality in society, abortion, terrorism, national security, drug use, and immigration. Libertarian millennials are more concerned about government domestic surveillance, the criminal justice system, and trade. Top priorities shared by both groups include the size and scope of government, free speech, government spending and debt, the economy, and taxes. Notably, libertarians and conservatives share their lowest priority: few are concerned about income inequality.

Voting in 2016

Although 88% of conservative millennial attendees identify as Republican (and 100% do if you include independent leaners), only 51% voted for Donald Trump in 2016. Nevertheless, this is considerably higher than the 20% of libertarian millennial attendees who voted for Trump. Among both sets of Trump voters, fully 7 in 10 said their vote was against Hillary Clinton rather than a vote for Trump. Thus, President Trump received few enthusiastic votes among this group of politically engaged millennial conservatives and libertarians.

While a majority of conservative attendees ultimately voted for Trump, a majority (55%) of libertarian attendees voted for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson instead. Few voted for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton (3%).  In fact, more said they did not vote (19%) than voted for Clinton.

Party Identification

Conservative millennials overwhelmingly (88%) identify as Republicans, while most libertarian attendees identify with the Libertarian Party (42%) or as politically independent (36%).

However, after asking independents and libertarians if they lean toward a political party, 100% of the conservative millennial attendees leaned with the Republican Party. A majority (58%) of libertarian millennial attendees did as well, while a third said they are truly independent, and 6% identified as Democrats.

Evaluations of Trump and Key Political Figures

Although few of the libertarian and conservative millennial attendees were enthusiastic supporters of Trump during the election, 64% of conservative attendees approve of Trump’s job performance. In stark contrast, 80% of libertarian attendees disapprove. Nevertheless, conservative approval is “soft” with only 12% “strongly” approving.  Libertarians are more ardently opposed, with 53% who “strongly disapprove” of President Trump.

Major differences also emerge in evaluations of key political figures. Notably, while 8 in 10 conservative millennial attendees have a favorable opinion of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, 8 in 10 libertarian attendees have an unfavorable view of him. Libertarian aversion likely stems from disagreements about the criminal justice system, policing, and drug policy. Conservative attendees also have favorable views of Kellyanne Conway (62%), former campaign manager and now Counselor to President Trump, while libertarian attendees do not (22%). Conversely, libertarian millennial attendees have positive views of former Gov. Gary Johnson (61%), while conservatives do not (18%). Conservative attendees are also about twice as likely as libertarians to have positive views of Senators Ted Cruz (88% vs 50%) and Marco Rubio (91% vs 48%).

Libertarian and conservative millennial attendees come together in their shared favorable views of Senator Rand Paul, Education Secretary Betsy Devos (likely due to their shared support of school choice), and writer George Will. They also share unfavorable views of Steve Bannon, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Ann Coulter, figures more closely associated with the “alt-right.”

Where Do They Get their News?

Conservative and libertarian millennial attendees share similar news consumption habits, sharing five of their top six news outlets: the Wall Street Journal (85%, 86%), the New York Times (66%, 75%), the Washington Post (68%, 72%), CNN (50%, 48%) and National Review (76%, 61%). However, conservatives are about 30 points more likely to regularly watch Fox (74% vs 45%) and 15 points more likely to read the Federalist (51% vs 36%). Conversely, libertarians are 53 points more likely to read Reason (24% vs 77%).

Culture Wars and Transgender Issues

Conservatives and libertarian millennials are starkly at odds when it comes to what pronouns to use when referring to transgender people.  When referring to a transgender person, 68% of libertarian millennial attendees choose to use the person’s preferred gender pronouns. In contrast, 67% of conservative millennial attendees say they use the pronouns corresponding with the transgender person’s biological sex.

This difference extends to bathroom access as well. Eight in 10 conservative millennials say transgender people should be required to use the restroom corresponding with their biological sex. Conversely, 70% of libertarian millennials say transgender people should be allowed to use the restroom of the gender they identify with.

Most conservatives (81%) disagree that we as a society need to do more to ensure LGBT people feel fully accepted.  Meanwhile, libertarians are split, with 50% believing more should be done for LGBT people to feel accepted and 47% agreeing with conservatives that no more needs to be done.

Despite these differences, conservatives and libertarians agree on religious liberty: 99% of conservative and 87% of libertarian respondents believe that businesses should be allowed to refuse service to same-sex weddings.


Conservative and libertarian millennials diverge dramatically on questions of illegal and legal immigration.  While 79% of libertarians support increasing the number of immigrants allowed into the country each year, only 20% of conservatives agree. Instead, most conservatives would prefer to decrease the number (35%) or keep it the same (45%).

When it comes to handling illegal immigration, a majority (52%) of conservative attendees support deporting illegal immigrants and 24% wish to bar them from citizenship. In contrast, 70% of libertarian attendees want to allow illegal immigrants to stay in the US and be able to eventually apply for citizenship.

Finally, 69% of conservatives favor building a wall along the Mexican border, but 90% of libertarians oppose. However, conservatives are less intensely in favor of the wall than libertarians are opposed to it: only 14% of conservatives “strongly favor” while 67% of libertarians “strongly oppose” its construction.

When it comes to passing a temporary ban on Muslims immigrating to the United States, conservative attendees are evenly divided, while 86% of libertarian attendees are opposed.

Opioid Epidemic

While most likely share concerns about overuse of prescription painkillers, conservative and libertarian attendees starkly disagree about what government should do about it. Eight in 10 conservatives agree “government needs to do more” to combat prescription painkiller addiction, but 8 in 10 libertarians disagree that government should take on this role.

Organ Donations

It is currently illegal to buy or sell human organs. However, 92% of libertarian attendees believe such a market should be legal; 8% agree with the status quo. Conservatives are ardently opposed with 72% who think such a market should remain illegal, while 28% would favor legalization.

Foreign Policy and National Security

Conservative and libertarian millennials sharply disagree on questions of foreign policy. Nearly 90% of conservative attendees support either increasing (38%) or maintaining (51%) our military presence around the world, while 84% of libertarians support decreasing this presence.  Moreover, 92% of libertarian respondents support cutting defense spending to help balance the federal budget, while 72% of conservatives oppose such cuts.

Conservative and libertarian attendees also make different trade-offs between national security and privacy. Seven in 10 conservatives say they’d be willing to give up some personal freedom and privacy for the sake of national security. In contrast, 9 in 10 libertarians say they would not be willing to give up more freedom and privacy for security.

In line with such priorities, 60% of conservative attendees approve of government collection of domestic telephone and Internet data, while 92% of libertarians disapprove of this collection.

Health Care

On matters of health care, conservatives and libertarians are often aligned—particularly when it comes to repealing the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare (99%, 95%). However, similar to what’s playing out at the Congressional level, libertarians and conservatives disagree about how to improve the health care system in the country. Three-fourths (76%) of libertarians say the health care system “needs to be completely rebuilt.” However, conservatives are evenly divided with 49% agreeing that the system should be rebuilt, but 46% who think the system “needs major reform but doesn’t need to be completely rebuilt.” Less than 5% of either group think the current system works well and only needs minor changes.

Climate Change

Libertarian and conservative millennial attendees disagree about the causes of climate change but they agree on a solution. Conservatives are more likely to believe climate change is a natural phenomenon, with 54% believing increases in Earth’s temperature are either mostly or entirely due to natural causes. Meanwhile, 62% of libertarians think climate change comes partially, mostly, or entirely from human activity. Despite these different underlying beliefs, 99% of conservative and libertarian attendees agree that technological innovation in the free market will better solve climate change than government regulation.

Criminal Justice

Majorities of conservatives and libertarians reach consensus on several criminal justice issues. Both agree that police departments using military weapons and drones are not necessary for law enforcement purposes. But libertarians (92%) agree more than conservatives (61%). Both groups also favor eliminating mandatory minimum prison sentences for people convicted of selling drugs (64% conservative, 84% libertarian).

However, conservative and libertarian attendees diverge on the death penalty: a majority (56%) of conservatives favor it while a majority (75%) of libertarians oppose it.  Respondents also diverge in their perception of racial equality before the law, with 54% of conservatives saying that African Americans and other minorities “receive equal treatment with whites” in the criminal justice system and 73% of libertarians believing that minorities do not receive equal treatment.

Free Markets and the Welfare State

Despite the variety of policy differences between libertarian and conservative attendees outlined above, the two groups largely agree about economic issues, the benefits of free markets, and trade.

For instance, 100% of both groups say they favor a smaller government providing fewer services and low taxes. Nearly 100% of both oppose raising taxes on wealthy households and also agree that regulation too often does more harm than good. Eight in 10 conservatives and nearly 100% of libertarians believe free trade must be allowed even if domestic industries are hurt by foreign competition.


Conservative and libertarian millennials have different ideas about the role of religion in society. An overwhelming majority (83%) of libertarian attendees say religious values should not play a more important role in government. But, 62% of conservative attendees disagree and think such values should play a more important role. Conservatives also believe that it’s important for kids to be brought up with religious values. Libertarians are divided, but tend to disagree (56%).

Much of this contrast may stem from differences in religious affiliation and habits.  While 95% of conservative respondents have a religious preference, 38% of libertarians describe themselves as “non-religious.” Moreover, conservative millennial attendees are twice as likely as libertarians to attend church weekly or monthly (80% vs 41%).  A majority (58%) of libertarian respondents either never or rarely attend a religious service.

Who Won the Intern Debate?

Who won the intern debate depends on whom you ask. Among conservative millennial attendees: 53% said the conservative team won and 44% said the libertarian team won. Among libertarian millennial attendees, 94% said the libertarians won while 5% said the conservatives won. Among the moderates, liberals and progressives in the audience, 83% felt the libertarian team won and 12% thought the conservatives won.


This survey provides a useful snapshot of young politically engaged conservatives and libertarians who are interested enough in politics and public policy to intern in Washington or attend an event for Washington interns. Thus, this data offers an idea of the direction young activists may take public policy as they age and the cleavages that may animate policy debates into the future. 

Full LvCDebate Attendee Survey results found here

David Kemp contributed to this report.