‘Libertarian’ Is Not a Four-Letter Word

0003_david_boazJohn Zogby and Zeljka Buturovic raise some doubts about the significance of libertarian voters in the American electorate. They respond in particular to the paper David Kirby and I just published. (See more background analysis in this original 2006 paper.) They make two major points: first, that only 2 percent of poll respondents call themselves libertarian; and second, that those people are effectively conservative Republicans.

On the first point, they’re basically right. “Libertarian” is an unfamiliar word to most people, even people who actually hold broadly libertarian views. Rasmussen found that 4 percent identified themselves that way, and a Center for American Progress poll found 6 percent — but 13 percent of young people.

But there are other ways to measure libertarian sentiment. Most analysts just assume that everyone is a liberal, a conservative, or a moderate. But what if you don’t buy the entire current mix of “liberal” or “conservative” positions? Kirby and I picked three questions on political attitudes from the American National Election Studies, the gold standard of political polling, and we found that 14 percent gave libertarian answers to all three questions. Gallup asks two questions — one on the size of government, one on “promoting traditional values” — every year and finds about 20 percent of respondents give libertarian answers to both questions (23 percent in 2009). And a Zogby poll just after the 2006 election 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. And 44 percent accepted the description even when we added the word “libertarian.” So I do think there are a lot more than 2 percent of the voters who look at both social and economic issues from a basically libertarian perspective.

On the second point, yes, we’ve found that the 14-15 percent of libertarian voters we identify usually vote about 70 percent Republican. But not always. In 1992 half that libertarian Republican group jumped ship and voted for Ross Perot. In 2004 George W. Bush got only 59 percent of the libertarian vote, and in 2006 libertarians gave only about 54 percent of their votes to Republican congressional candidates. Facing a prospective Obama-Reid-Pelosi government during an economic crisis, they came back to the Republican fold in 2008.

From the perspective of politicians and their advisers, I think it’s fair to say that these libertarians are a not-entirely-reliable part of the broad Republican constituency. After the 2006 election a front-page story in the Washington Post reported a dramatic 7-point shift of white conservative evangelicals away from the Republicans. That’s a story. But the underreported story was a 24-point swing of libertarians away from Republican congressional candidates between 2002 and 2006. That’s a point Republican strategists — and Democrats — ought to ponder.

And there’s a footnote that might become main text in the next few years: In 2008, even as libertarians generally returned to the 70 percent Republican fold, young libertarians (18 to 29) gave a majority of their votes to Obama. Maybe these younger voters will come to their senses. Or maybe the Republican brand just isn’t very appealing to young voters (who are, for instance, strongly supportive of gay marriage and overwhelmingly supportive of gays in the military).

The libertarian vote is just beginning to be studied. We appreciate the efforts of Zogby International to find out more, and we hope other pollsters and political scientists will also direct some attention to finding, measuring, and analyzing libertarians.

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