Is There a Libertarian Vote?

The Gallup Poll has a new estimate of the number of libertarians in the American electorate. In their 2014 Gallup Governance Survey they find that 24 percent of respondents can be characterized as libertarians (as compared to 27 percent conservative, 21 percent liberal, and 18 percent populist).

For more than 20 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?

Here’s a graphic depiction of the number of respondents who gave libertarian answers to both questions in the Bush-Obama years: 

Gallup Governance libertarians

Libertarians, who disagree with both Democrats and Republicans on major issues, have not been reliable voters for either party. They generally tend to vote Republican by about a two to one majority. But as David Kirby and I wrote in our 2010 study, “The Libertarian Vote in the Age of Obama”:

In 2004 libertarians swung away from Bush, anticipating the Democratic victories of 2006. In 2008, according to new data in this paper, libertarians voted against Barack Obama. Libertarians seem to be a lead indicator of trends in centrist, independent-minded voters. If libertarians continue to lead the independents away from Obama, Democrats will lose 2010 midterm elections they would otherwise win.

And of course the Democrats did have a bad 2010. If libertarian-leaning voters react against Obamacare, overregulation, endless wars, and the surveillance state, then Democrats are likely to have a bad 2014 as well. But Republican positions on immigration, gay marriage, and marijuana push libertarian voters, especially millennial libertarians away; that might account for the surprisingly weak showing of many Republicans in polls in a year when President Obama is unpopular and the economy remains dismal.

Read more about the libertarian vote in our original study or in our 2012 ebook.

Hat tip to Lydia Saad for the data and to Derek Lee and David Dewhurst for the chart.