CATO: More Libertarians Than Conservatives.
I came across this paper by The Cato Institute, “The Libertarian Vote in the Age of Obama”, and pretty amazed at what I found. The libertarian voting bloc is much bigger than I originally thought. The influence is also, much bigger. For a quick snap shot, look at the Tea party movement. A lot of media focus had been on the “conservative” faction, but I bet if you took a closer look at the broad range of people involved, you’d see that the data CATO put forth is exemplified perfectly in the movement.
In recent history, most Americans either identified themselves as Democrat or Republican without really understanding the system. A small amount of the country self-identified as libertarians, this group tends to have grievances with both parties, they detest the lack of fiscal responsibility of the Democrats and they really dislike the “morality police” tactics of the Republicans. Until recently, this group was small, on paper. But lately there’s been a lot of polling of Libertarians, which CATO categorizes as anyone who believes they are “fiscally conservative and socially liberal”, self-identified libertarian or not and the data coming back is showing the amount of libertarians are growing.
According to CATO and the data from American National Election Studies, in 2008, 14% of voters were libertarian, based on three questions. Gallop used only 2 questions to poll voters, and derived a 23% libertarian response.
But in all polls, it’s all about the questions asked.
[W]e commissioned Zogby International to ask our three ANES questions (pg 4) to 1,012 actual (reported) voters in the 2006 election. Once again, we found that 15 percent of voters could be defined as libertarian on our three-question screen. Zogby asked respondents to characterize their own ideology and included “libertarian” as a choice, which very few such polls do. Only 9 percent of the voters we identified as libertarian identified themselves as libertarians; 50 percent said “conservative” or “very conservative,” and 31 percent said “moderate.”
But we also asked a new question. We asked half the sample, “Would you describe yourself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal?” We asked the other half of the respondents, “Would you describe yourself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal, also known as libertarian?”
The results surprised us. Fully 59 percent of the respondents said “yes” to the first question. That is, by 59 to 27 percent, poll respondents said they would describe themselves as “fiscally conservative and socially liberal.”
They also note that it seems that the word “libertarian” may have tripped up some people, but even then, 44% of people polled were accepting of the libertarian description.
So, what factor does this play in elections? Well, according to CATO, libertarians are the ultimate swing voters. In the 2006 elections, they were fed up with the Republican reign of increasing spending, encroachment on civil liberties. And the Democrats took over congress. In the 2008 election, many veered away from the Democrats because of their increasing “socialist” agenda.
Our review of ANES data shows that 66 percent of libertarians voted for Republican House candidates that year, while only 30 percent voted Democratic. The numbers show an even larger return swing in the Senate, with 73 percent voting Republican compared to 22 percent Democratic.
The bigger story is the presidential election. According to the 2008 ANES Panel study, 71 percent of libertarians voted for John McCain. Only 27 percent cast their vote for Barack Obama.
…However, the libertarian vote for McCain should not be misinterpreted as enthusiasm for Republicans. While 53 percent of ANES 2008 libertarians identify as Republican when asked for party affiliation, they do so only weakly. Of Republican libertarian voters, 45 percent said their party identification was “not very strong.”
This lack of party loyalty was readily apparent in responses given by libertarians after the presidential election. When asked whether they considered voting for someone else, almost half of libertarian McCain supporters (43 percent) said yes. And when asked who they considered voting for, 58 percent said a third party candidate. Perhaps this weak support for Republican leaders in 2008 was an early indicator of the anger or “contempt” toward the Republican establishment that Charlie Cook describes today.
Even when you look at the younger voters, they still tend to lean Libertarian. The paper goes onto describe various different aspects of the “youth or Millennial” vote and the various characteristics that contribute to their fickle ways. I’m not going to get that involved here, but it’s interesting to note that this voting bloc was excited about Barack Obama but they have a tendency to flip that excitement into contempt if he doesn’t hold up his promises. Which he isn’t…and slowly, they’re falling off the bandwagon.
The paper also explains that while the word “libertarian” still tends to hold a slightly negative connotation, there are various ways libertarians use to identify themselves.
*Conservative—According to ANES data, if libertarians are offered the traditional liberal-conservative choice, 40 percent
call themselves “conservative.” Of course, this description conflates conservatives and libertarians, making it hard for pollsters and pundits to recognize the
difference. For instance, in a recent Washington Post column, Bill Kristol cited an increase in the number of conservatives in a Gallup poll as a reason for optimism; many of these “conservatives” are surely libertarians.
*Moderate – While some think of libertarians as extreme, according to ANES data, 42 percent of libertarians call themselves “moderate” or “slightly conservative.” This is not an unreasonable description. After all, libertarianism centers on individual rights, private property, and personal responsibility—institutions that were central to the American Founding. Further, today’s libertarians sense that they are not as far left as liberals on economic issues, nor as far right as conservatives on social issues
*Libertarian—According to the CAP data, when offered the choice of the word “libertarian” alongside conservative and moderate, 6 percent of respondents will call themselves libertarian. This is consistent with 2008 Rasmussen data that found 4 percent of respondents self-identify as libertarians. This group likely includes many libertarian intellectuals who are more recognizable in Washington political circles as bloggers, economists, and scholars at think tanks, as well as people who read libertarian magazines, visit libertarian websites, or support Ron Paul or Libertarian Party candidates. Interestingly, younger libertarians are more than twice as likely to self-identify as “libertarian.” According to the CAP data, when offered the option, 13 percent of young people call themselves libertarian— about the same percentage as call themselves conservative.
*Independent—According to ANES data, 46 percent of libertarians called themselves “independent” on a party affiliation question in 2004, and 28 percent chose the “independent” label in 2008. According to CAP data, younger libertarians are twice as likely to call themselves independent.
*Fiscally Conservative, Socially Liberal— According to the Zogby poll in 2006, 59 percent of Americans say this describes their views. And 44 percent agree that “fiscally conservative and socially liberal, also known as libertarian” applies to them.
The first question I had after reading this paper was, “what effect would this have on our upcoming elections?” It’s pretty clear that when you factor in the mood of the country, how predominantly fiscally conservative the nation is, and the number of incumbents up for reelection, you can see how much power libertarians have. What was once thought to be “the year of the conservative comeback”, it’s becoming more obvious that it’s going to be “the year of the libertarian.” Now that much contempt for both parties has been harnessed, it’ll be interesting to see how it’s unleashed at the voting booths. I have a feeling, if the data holds up, it’s going to be painful for both parties, but more so for Democrats since they are the party in power. That said, Republicans shouldn’t feel safe either, Republican incumbents have pretty big targets on their backs too.
Suggested Reading: Famous Friedman Quotes