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CATO: More Libertarians Than Conservatives.

February 12, 2010

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

8 Comments leave one →
  1. February 12, 2010 3:48 pm

    Slowly, people are beginning to become weary of Big G and the direction this country is headed. Truly civilized societies are free societies and we are gaining ground. It’s time to leave the Age of Caesar behind.

    I am a libertarian, not a conservative. It’s true a libertarian finds no peace in the world, but this is slowly changing.

  2. clay barham permalink
    February 13, 2010 11:38 am

    What you are seeing is a movement back toward the 19th century Democrats, the only truly functioning libertarian party in America that followed Jefferson and Madison, unlike modern Democrats who prefer Rousseau and Marx, when the people do not. See The Changing Face of Democrats on Amazon and

  3. Jay permalink
    February 18, 2010 10:54 pm

    What strikes me is the lack of solid self definition. Being stuck in the middle does interesting things.

    I would call myself a libertarian but I just can’t chew on the pro-choice and legalizing of drugs stances prevalent in the party. At the same time, I have a hard time identifying with the current state of the Republican party.

    People forget, as well, that there are still striking differences in ideology between the Dems and Repubs. The media does a great job in lumping them together and people like Alex Jones aren’t doing anyone any favors. I think both have drastically lost their way but the republican party is still closer to what our founders envisioned. Now if we can only convince them of that.

    The independents are doing a great job of waking up both party’s and I think I’m with you on the up and coming elections. Should be interesting to say the least. The Democrats have much further to run to capture their base however and I think it is going to be drastically harder on them.

    Once again, great post! You’re on my blog roll.

    • Anarcho-capitalist permalink
      December 1, 2010 4:19 pm

      “I would call myself a libertarian but I just can’t chew on the pro-choice and legalizing of drugs stances prevalent in the party.”

      I’m libertarian, but just know that you can believe both of those things and still be libertarian. Libertarianism is based on the non-aggression axiom:

      So how would a libertarian society solve the dilemma of having a public morality without it being coercively enforced by a central government? Through the proliferation of voluntary communities owning private property, each with their own type of covenant restricting or prohibiting what they see as harmful behaviors.

      If a particular covenant is disagreeable to you, then you don’t have to live there or visit there. This currently is what occurs with individual homes. If your neighbor is a jerk, then you don’t have to visit there or spend the night. Likewise, you can forbid him from entering your residence.

      In time we would see covenants that are drug-free (both religious and secular), pot-smoker communities, Renaissance re-enactment communities, Mormon-only communities headed by a prophet where gambling/prostitution/pornography are forbidden etc.

      Every individual would have a choice of many different communities which reflected their personal morals. Each lifestyle community would compete for members. Folks would judge the tree by the fruit, and I suspect that communities embracing harmful behaviors would putrefy and fizzle out. Even if they didn’t, their pathology would remain contained, which is the next best thing.

  4. Zane Coots permalink
    February 2, 2011 1:10 pm

    Thanks for one’s marvelous posting! I definitely enjoyed reading it, you can be a great author.I will be sure to bookmark your blog and will come back very soon. I want to encourage one to continue your great job, have a nice evening!


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