This year we commissioned a nationwide post-election survey of 1013 voters from Zogby International. We again found that 15 percent of the voters held libertarian views. We also found a further swing of libertarians away from Republican candidates. In 2006, libertarians voted 59-36 for Republican congressional candidates—a 24-point swing from the 2002 mid-term election. To put this in perspective, front-page stories since the election have reported the dramatic 7-point shift of white conservative evangelicals away from the Republicans. The libertarian vote is about the same size as the religious right vote measured in exit polls, and it is subject to swings more than three times as large.
Based on the turnout in 2004, Bush’s margin over Kerry dropped by 4.8 million votes among libertarians. Had he held his libertarian supporters, he would have won a smashing reelection rather than squeaking by in Ohio.
President Bush and the congressional Republicans left no libertarian button unpushed in the past six years: soaring spending, expansion of entitlements, federalization of education, cracking down on state medical marijuana initiatives, Sarbanes-Oxley, gay marriage bans, stem cell research restrictions, wiretapping, incarcerating U.S. citizens without a lawyer, unprecedented executive powers, and of course an unnecessary and apparently futile war. The striking thing may be that after all that, Democrats still looked worse to a majority of libertarians. ~David Kirby & David Boaz
As Ramesh Ponnuru (via Ross Douthat) points out, the 2006 showing with libertarian voters in House races was a marginal improvement for the GOP over their showing in 2004. This is almost inexplicable when you consider that the last two years have marked even greater divergence between libertarian hopes and GOP practices. In spite of the Military Commissions Act, two more years of the war in Iraq, two more years of earmark splurging, and two more years of the executive running roughshod over everything, the libertarian vote for the GOP held steady and even ticked up a few points. (In the mad, mad world of American politics, this means that John Kerry‘s coat-tails actually helped Democratic House candidates with libertarian voters in ’04, for reasons that only God can fully comprehend.) In the libertarian universe, what little GOP action there was on immigration control and border fencing would have made the GOP even more obnoxious to them, yet more libertarians voted to retain the corrupt, inept, hideous GOP majority than there had been two years previously.
This has happened in the year when most Americans declared their disgust for the very same people. If I were a GOP poobah, I would almost be laughing at libertarian voters because of their mind-numbing partisan loyalty even as I was making a mental note to pay no more attention to them. The GOP electoral strategists should now be busily worrying how to recapture populist Democratic-leaning independents and culturally conservative Democrats (i.e., people like Jim Webb, who became Republicans when Republicans were still relatively sane on foreign policy) on the one hand and David Brooksian suburbanites on the other. In other words, they may need to start thinking how to be more like Buchanan, Dobbs and Tancredo on populist issues (at least in some parts of the country) and how they can be less like David Boaz. If the GOP cannot figure this out, they are very likely headed to a string of electoral defeats. Meanwhile, the mighty libertarian swing vote has shown itself to be irrelevant on the national level while doing little more than playing spoiler in some of the least populous states in the nation (the libertarian battle cry: today Montana, tomorrow Wyoming, next week maybe Nevada!).
The vote tallies from 2004 and 2006 suggest that there is a core libertarian vote that is perfectly willing to be taken for granted by the GOP and that will keep voting for the GOP even at its most abysmally unprincipled and terrible. In other words: relax, RNC, libertarian voters are almost as big a bunch of chumps as conservative Christians! You can ignore them with impunity, just as you have been doing for years. Because the GOP’s core constituencies have turned out for them with virtually zombie-like predictability in the worst of times, the RNC will instead internalise the lesson delivered to them by disgruntled independents: it is the proverbially wobbly and disaffected center and not the base that should be our concern. The base has played according to the “base strategy” so well that it is making itself functionally irrelevant to the considerations of party leaders. This is why you withhold your vote from people who have failed to represent you, because when you continue to endorse those who have betrayed your principles they will assume that they can do this forever without penalty.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the case of libertarian voters, who had every reason in 2006 to defect or sit out en masse but who actually started “coming home” to a party that has, by their own admission, increasingly become less and less interested in their sorts of policies. In other words, the GOP Congress stripped terrorism suspects of habeas corpus protections and more or less handed the executive the authority to determine what constitutes torture, and the great, high-minded libertarian voting bloc–of which we are now supposed to be in awe–voted for that GOP majority at a higher rate than they did before the Military Commissions Act passed. Nice one, liberts.
I will bet you that many of these “libertarian-leaning” voters, in spite of everything else that Mr. Bush has done that might offend them, are concerned about one important thing: keeping those marginal tax rates down. Seeing the possibility of a Democratic Congress and (gasp!) possibly higher taxes, a fair few libertarians ran home to the Red Republicans out of fear of higher taxes. Hang the Constitution and fiscal sanity–we need to protect the bottom line! There are four out of ten libertarian voters who can say that they did not succumb to this kind of thinking, and good for them, but a noticeable number of their ideological brethren inexplicably seem to have come around to the idea that GOP misrule wasn’t as bad as they had thought it was two years ago.
After all the libertarian whining and lamenting about the dominance of religious conservatives and after the pundits have worked themselves into a lather about the GOP’s endangered hold on the “libertarian” West (both of which threaten to become an important part of the conventional wisdom of Why The GOP Lost), we find that libertarians were even less inclined to vote Democratic in the year of the Great Repudiation than they were in ’04. The Schiavo episode must have made libertarians more enthusiastic about Republican control–how else do we explain the rise in the libertarian vote for the GOP? (Obviously, I kid here.) Social conservatism did not drive away that many of the independents–the war and corruption scandals did that all on their own–and it also did not drive away any more libertarians than had already been driven away by 2004. Kirby and Boaz summon the phantom of the “scary” social conservative “obsessions” of the GOP as the thing that is hurting the GOP; social conservatism is the infection that must be eliminated. Yet libertarian voting patterns show that even the extreme intervention in the Schiavo controversy made no difference in whether libertarians supported the GOP.
What changed between ’02 and ’04? Gosh, I don’t know. Could it be the war? Iraq is the big libertarian vote loser if anything is, just as it is the big vote loser among many other constituencies. But even Iraq isn’t such a big loser among libertarian voters, since more of them voted for the GOP when Iraq policy was clearly failing than when it was slightly less calamitous.
All this suggests that a majority of libertarian voters is predictably loyal to the GOP brand in good times and bad. There is therefore virtually no incentive for the GOP to pander to their concerns about smaller government, less regulation or fiscal responsibility. The upside of pandering to libertarians is simply not great enough to justify the risk of alienating the much more numerous voters from other very un-libertarian constituencies.
So there has evidently been some real weakening in libertarian support for the GOP between ’02 and today, but 2006 shows that the bleeding has stopped at the Congressional level and Democratic gains among these voters have ceased. Short of declaring martial law and sending thousands of people to prison camps, Vendetta-style, the GOP would have a hard time convincing these folks that it was a worse bet in any given election. So much for the great Libertarian Democrat hope. So much for the importance of the libertarian vote. Next!