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Libertarian Roots of the Tea Party, Cato Policy Analysis No. 705

Libertarian Roots of the Tea Party, Cato Policy Analysis No. 705

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Published by Cato Institute
Many people on the left still dismiss the tea party as the same old religious right, but the evidence says they are wrong. The tea party has strong libertarian roots and is a functionally libertarian influence on the Republican Party.

Compiling data from local and national polls, as well as dozens of original interviews with tea party members and leaders, we find that the tea party is united on economic issues, but split on the social issues it tends to avoid. Roughly half the tea party is socially conservative, half libertarian — or, fiscally conservative, but socially moderate to liberal.



Libertarians led the way for the tea party. Starting in early 2008 through early 2009, we find that libertarians were more than twice as "angry" with the Republican Party, more pessimistic about the economy and deficit since 2001, and more frustrated that people like them cannot affect government than were conservatives. Libertarians, including young people who supported Ron Paul's 2008 presidential campaign, provided much of the early energy for the tea party and spread the word through social media.

Understanding the tea party's strong libertarian roots helps explain how the tea party movement has become a functionally libertarian influence on the Republican Party. Most tea partiers have focused on fiscal, not social, issues — cutting spending, ending bailouts, reducing debt, and reforming taxes and entitlements — rather than discussing abortion or gay marriage. Even social conservatives and evangelicals within the tea party act like libertarians. The tea party is upending the conventional wisdom that Republicans candidates must placate socially conservative voters to win primaries.

Increasingly, Republican candidates must win over tea party voters on libertarian economic issues.

To the extent the Republican Party becomes functionally libertarian, focusing on fiscal over social issues, the tea party deserves much credit — credit that political strategists, scholars, and journalists have yet to fully give.
Many people on the left still dismiss the tea party as the same old religious right, but the evidence says they are wrong. The tea party has strong libertarian roots and is a functionally libertarian influence on the Republican Party.

Compiling data from local and national polls, as well as dozens of original interviews with tea party members and leaders, we find that the tea party is united on economic issues, but split on the social issues it tends to avoid. Roughly half the tea party is socially conservative, half libertarian — or, fiscally conservative, but socially moderate to liberal.



Libertarians led the way for the tea party. Starting in early 2008 through early 2009, we find that libertarians were more than twice as "angry" with the Republican Party, more pessimistic about the economy and deficit since 2001, and more frustrated that people like them cannot affect government than were conservatives. Libertarians, including young people who supported Ron Paul's 2008 presidential campaign, provided much of the early energy for the tea party and spread the word through social media.

Understanding the tea party's strong libertarian roots helps explain how the tea party movement has become a functionally libertarian influence on the Republican Party. Most tea partiers have focused on fiscal, not social, issues — cutting spending, ending bailouts, reducing debt, and reforming taxes and entitlements — rather than discussing abortion or gay marriage. Even social conservatives and evangelicals within the tea party act like libertarians. The tea party is upending the conventional wisdom that Republicans candidates must placate socially conservative voters to win primaries.

Increasingly, Republican candidates must win over tea party voters on libertarian economic issues.

To the extent the Republican Party becomes functionally libertarian, focusing on fiscal over social issues, the tea party deserves much credit — credit that political strategists, scholars, and journalists have yet to fully give.

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Published by: Cato Institute on Jul 30, 2012
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Executive Summary 
Many people on the left still dismiss the tea party as the same old religious right, but theevidence says they are wrong. The tea party hasstrong libertarian roots and is a functionally lib-ertarian influence on the Republican Party.Compiling data from local and nationalpolls, as well as dozens of original interviewswith tea party members and leaders, we findthat the tea party is united on economic issues,but split on the social issues it tends to avoid.Roughly half the tea party is socially conserva-tive, half libertarian—or, fiscally conservative,but socially moderate to liberal.Libertarians led the way for the tea party.Starting in early 2008 through early 2009, wefind that libertarians were more than twice as“angry” with the Republican Party, more pes-simistic about the economy and deficit since2001, and more frustrated that people like themcannot affect government than were conserva-tives. Libertarians, including young people whosupported Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential cam-paign, provided much of the early energy for thetea party and spread the word through socialmedia.Understanding the tea party’s strong lib-ertarian roots helps explain how the tea party movement has become a functionally libertar-ian influence on the Republican Party. Mosttea partiers have focused on fiscal, not social,issues—cutting spending, ending bailouts, re-ducing debt, and reforming taxes and entitle-ments—rather than discussing abortion or gay marriage. Even social conservatives and evan-gelicals within the tea party act like libertarians.The tea party is upending the conventionalwisdom that Republican candidates must pla-cate socially conservative voters to win prima-ries. Increasingly, Republican candidates mustwin over tea party voters on libertarian econom-ic issues.To the extent the Republican Party becomesfunctionally libertarian, focusing on fiscal oversocial issues, the tea party deserves much cred-it—credit that political strategists, scholars, and journalists have yet to fully give.
 Libertarian Roots of the Tea Party
by David Kirby and Emily Ekins
No. 705August 6, 2012
 David Kirby is vice president at FreedomWorks and an associate policy analyst for the Cato Institute. Emily Ekins is the director of polling at Reason Foundation and a research fellow at the Cato Institute.
 
2
The political story of 2010 wasthe rise of the teaparty.
Introduction 
[Ron] Paul is less a candidate thana “cause”. . . The other candidateshad to pretend they were happy withtheir [New Hampshire] results. Paulwas genuinely delighted with his,because, after a quarter-century in thewilderness, he’s within reach of put-ting his cherished cause on the map.Libertarianism will have gone fromthe fringes—those hopeless, pathet-ic third-party runs—to a position of prominence in a major party.
1
—Charles Krauthammer,
Washington Post 
, January 12, 2012The surprise of the 2012 Republican pres-idential election cycle is that despite strongopposition to President Barack Obama, Re-publicans’ enthusiasm for their own candi-dates has remained low. After the first eightcontests, turnout was down 10 percent from2008.
2
Mitt Romney, the long-presumedfront-runner, has inspired little enthusiasmamong the grass roots. Tea party supporters,who represented more than half of all Repub-lican primary voters, never unified around a single candidate. Candidates surpassed 50percent of the tea party vote in only threeprimary states: Romney won 70 percent of tea party supporters in his home state of Massachusetts; Newt Gingrich won 51 per-cent of tea party support in his home stateof Georgia; and Romney won 60 percent of tea party supporters in Virginia, where only two candidates appeared on the ballot. RickSantorum never won more than 50 percentof the tea party vote in any primary.
3
And, wewitnessed ephemeral surges for several othercandidates, including Michele Bachmann,Rick Perry, and Herman Cain. Yet steady interest in Ron Paul has out-stripped all other candidates by some mea-sures. The Google Politics and Electionsteam reported that “Ron Paul” was the toppolitical search term of the election, evenbeating out “Tim Tebow” and “Christmas”in December 2011.
4
Political pros admiredPaul’s well-organized grass roots operationin Iowa and New Hampshire. Paul has cap-tured the imagination of many young peo-ple, winning young voters under 30 in a thirdof the primaries and caucuses in exit pollsthus far and placing second in another third.
5
 Long after it had become obvious that RonPaul would not be the nominee, he contin-ued to gather ever larger crowds. During thefirst week of April, Paul drew an estimated6,000 supporters to a campaign stop at theUniversity of California, Los Angeles,
6
and8,500 at the University of California, Berke-ley,
7
his largest crowds of the campaign. Thisoccurred the same week Romney won theWisconsin primary, making his nominationall but inevitable. As
Washington Post 
colum-nist Charles Krauthammer recognized early,Paul may lose and still catapult libertarianideas into the mainstream of the RepublicanParty.The political story of 2010 was the rise of the tea party. A top political story of the 2012presidential cycle is this curious persistenceof the libertarian supporters of Ron Paul, de-spite his failure to win a single primary con-test. But these may well be two parts to thesame story—a story of the emergence of a lib-ertarian constituency that has planted rootsin the tea party but traces its history backto frustrations with the Bush administra-tion since at least 2008, if not before. Indeed,
Washington Post 
veteran election analyst DanBalz put it this way: “Paul was . . . tea party when tea party wasn’t cool.”
8
Liberals caricature the tea party as thesame old religious right. Conservatives mis-understand it. Establishment Republicansfear it. But given all this political anxiety,and despite hundreds of articles and analy-ses, there is very little agreement on what thetea party is, and where exactly it comes from.In this paper, we argue that the tea party has strong libertarian roots and is a libertar-ian influence on the Republican Party. Wetrace the origins of the tea party back to2008, using data analysis techniques of po-litical science. In the first section, we com-
 
3
Evidence showsthat the first waves of teaparties had a decidedly libertarian flavor.
pile data from local and national polls, aswell as dozens of original interviews withtea party members and leaders. We find thatthe tea party is united on economic issuesbut split on social issues. About half thetea party is socially conservative and half islibertarian. The conservative half is moreRepublican. The libertarian half is more in-dependent. While many tea partiers have a favorable opinion of Glenn Beck and SarahPalin, libertarian tea partiers favor Ron Paulmore than do conservative tea partiers.Throughout this paper, we use the word“libertarian” to identify voters who are fis-cally conservative but socially moderate toliberal, based on their answers to questionson polls. This is the same method used inprevious Cato studies on the libertarian vote.
9
We do not claim that these are hard-core libertarians who have all read Ayn Randand F. A. Hayek, or are as ideologically self-aware as readers of 
 Reason
magazine. Rather,these voters’ libertarian beliefs distinguishthem from liberals and conservatives, even if the word “libertarian” may be unfamiliar tothem.
10
 In the second section, we model the roleof libertarians and the tea party in the right-leaning coalition, over time. The AmericanNational Election Studies (ANES), a familiarand respected data source in political sci-ence, conducted a panel survey of the 2008presidential election and then followed these very same voters through early 2010. A panelsurvey differs from a traditional poll by call-ing back respondents over a period of time,much like following the same patients in a medical trial. In 2010 the survey identifiedtea party supporters, which enables us to un-derstand what eventual tea partiers believedin 2008 and how their opinions changedover time.Starting in early 2008 and through early 2009, we find that libertarians and tea party libertarians were more than twice as “angry”with the Republican Party as conservativetea partiers and Republicans more generally.Furthermore, we find that libertarians andtea party libertarians were more pessimisticabout the economy and deficit since 2001and more frustrated that people like themcannot affect government.Pollster Scott Rasmussen, in his book
 Mad as Hell 
, describes tea party members as aboveall else being defined by “near stratospheric”levels of anger—anger toward Washington’soverspending, bailouts, and takeovers at thehands of both Democrats and Republicans.
11
 New York Times
reporter Kate Zernike chose
 Boiling Mad 
as the title of her book on thetea party. If we use this anger and agitationas a proxy for the origins of the tea party, lib-ertarians hit the stratosphere first. Evidenceshows that the first waves of tea parties hada decidedly libertarian flavor. Many younglibertarians played key a role as organizers,spreading the word through social networksbuilt during the Ron Paul campaign of 2008.In the third section, we then constructa time series that follows libertarians fromFebruary 2010 to March 2012, using pollingdata compiled by major media and nationalpolling organizations such as ABC/
Washing-ton Post 
; CBS/
 New York Times
; Gallup; Pew;and
 Reason
-Rupe. This time series construc-tion does not allow for as fine-tuned analy-ses as panel data, but nonetheless reveals theebb and flow of support among libertariansin the tea party movement. We find that inthese national surveys, libertarians averaged41 percent of tea party supporters in 2010,but dropped to an average of 30 percent sup-port in 2011—an 11 percentage point decline.Libertarians seemed to have soured onthe movement they helped create, perhapsas more conservatives got involved and con-gressional Republicans who waved the “tea party” flag failed to deliver promised cutsin spending. Young libertarians soured onthe tea party most quickly. In 2012 however,there is some evidence that libertarian sup-port of the tea party has increased again,perhaps as functionally libertarian tea party candidates have challenged establishmentRepublicans in Senate and House primaries.Taken together, this paper represents themost comprehensive analysis of polling data on the tea party to date.

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