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SWING VOTERS, TEA PARTIES, AND THE FISCALLY CONSERVATIVE, SOCIALLY LIBERAL CENTER
DAVID BOAZ, DAVID KIRBY, AND EMILY EKINS
Copyright © 2012 by the Cato Institute All rights reserved. ISBN: 978-1-938048-74-6 Cover design: Jon Meyers Cato Institute 1000 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W. Washington, D.C. 20001 www.cato.org
CONTENTS INTRODUCTION PART I: STUDIES
The Libertarian Vote Libertarian Voters in 2004 and 2006 The Libertarian Vote in the Age of Obama Libertarian Roots of the Tea Party
PART II: COMMENTARIES Tea Partiers
More Data on Libertarian Roots of Tea Party
Libertarian Trends in Public Opinion
Voters Want Smaller Government The Libertarian Trend New Polls Show Libertarian Trends on Marriage, Marijuana, Guns Poll Finds a Libertarian Shift
Democrats, Republicans, and Libertarian Voters
Republicans and the Libertarian Voters The Ohio “Values Voters” Myth, Again Obama Appeals for Libertarian Voters A Sweeping Rejection of President Bush
Libertarians Lead Independent Shift from Obama The Libertarian Vote in 2012
Libertarian States, Libertarian Parties
Where Are the Libertarians? Libertarian Voters and the Libertarian Party
Libertarian Voters at the Center of American Politics
Libertarian Voters Hiding in the Post Poll Evangelicals and Libertarians More Sightings of Libertarian Voters More Data on “Fiscally Conservative, Socially Liberal” Voters The Real Swing Voters
ABOUT THE AUTHORS ABOUT THE CATO INSTITUTE
What a long way we’ve come since David Kirby and David Boaz first started writing about the libertarian vote in 2006. Back then liberal blogger Matt Yglesias neatly summarized the conventional political wisdom: the libertarian vote is “zero percent,” “a rounding error in the scheme of things.” Why would anyone care what libertarians think? And National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru suggested that Republicans would actually lose votes by appealing to libertarians. Today, libertarians are an increasingly influential and accepted part of the political mix. Ron Paul went deep into the 2012 Republican presidential primary, drawing crowds of thousands of young people and 2.1 million votes; and his son Sen. Rand Paul is being joined by other libertarian-leaning members of both houses of Congress. Tea partiers have strong libertarian roots, as Kirby and Emily Ekins discuss in two articles in this book. The “Audit the Fed” bill passed the U.S. House 327 to 98; all but one Republican and 89 Democrats voted yes. In academia, social scientist Jonathan Haidt teamed up with scholars at UCLA, USC, and NYU to conduct the largest study ever on “libertarian psychology.” Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch write about a “libertarian moment” in their book Declaration of Independents. The latest Governance Survey from Gallup, earlier visions of which are cited throughout the book, finds 25 percent of respondents gave libertarian responses to two questions (“government is trying to do too many things” and “government should promote traditional values” ), up from 17 percent in 2004, 21 percent in 2006, and 23 percent in 2008 and 2010. Analysts from GOPAC to Nate Silver at the New York Times have tried to measure the libertarian—or “fiscally conservative, socially liberal”—constituency. The libertarian brand seems broader and more self-aware today than ever before. And that’s what we were trying to tell people beginning in 2006, when everyone was
saying that we're a country split down the middle, liberal vs. conservative, red America vs. blue America. Liberals and conservatives read different books, watch different networks, and go to different churches. In fact, we argued then, a substantial number of Americans don't fit into that liberalconservative dichotomy. Polls find that some 10 to 20 percent of voting-age Americans are libertarian, tending to agree with conservatives on economic issues and with liberals on personal freedom. In our research, beginning in 2006, we drew on drew on recent data from the Gallup Poll, the Pew Research Center Typology Survey, the American National Election Studies (ANES), and our own polling. We used questions on both economic and social issues that would allow us to distinguish libertarians from liberals and conservatives. Using in particular three questions from ANES, generally regarded as the best source of political opinion data, we find that about 15 percent of the electorate can be classified as libertarian. That is, they give libertarian answers to these questions: Next, I am going to ask you to choose which of two statements I read comes closer to your own opinion. You might agree to some extent with both, but we want to know which one is closer to your own views: ONE, The less government, the better; or TWO, There are more things that government should be doing? • ONE, We need a strong government to handle today’s complex economic problems; or, TWO, The free market can handle these problems without government being involved. • We should be more tolerant of people who choose to live according to their own moral standards, even if they are very different from our own. (Do you agree strongly, agree somewhat, neither agree nor disagree, disagree somewhat, or
disagree strongly with this statement?) People generally say that a liberal favors government intervention in the economy and protection of civil liberties, while a conservative is opposed to both economic intervention and the expansion of civil liberties. Libertarians oppose government intrusion into both the economy and personal freedoms. In these calculations, we use a broad definition of libertarian. We include both individuals who would self-identify as libertarian and individuals who hold libertarian views but may be unfamiliar with the word. It is clear that many people who hold libertarian views don’t self-identify as libertarians. One Rasmussen poll found that only 2 percent of respondents characterized themselves as libertarians, even though 16 percent held libertarian views on a series of questions. A 2012 ReasonRupe poll found 4 percent self-identified libertarians. In a closely divided electorate, the 15 percent libertarian group is clearly enough to influence the outcome of elections. So how do libertarians vote? Libertarians are increasingly a swing vote, and they are a larger share of the electorate than "soccer moms" and other micro-targeted groups. Our data show that libertarians have generally voted Republican—66 percent for Ronald Reagan in 1980, 74 percent for George H. W. Bush in 1988, and 72 percent for George W. Bush in 2000. But they are not diehard Republicans. John Anderson and Libertarian Party candidate Ed Clark got 17 percent of the libertarian vote in 1980, and Ross Perot took 33 percent of the libertarians in 1992. The libertarian vote for Republicans fell off in 2004 and 2006 in response to the Bush administration’s big-government agenda, and then grew again in 2008 and 2010 in light of the Obama-Pelosi-Reid Democrats. Who are the libertarians? They can be found in all parts of the country and all demographic groups, but they are more likely than the average voter to be male, well
educated, affluent, and living in the Mountain and Pacific West. They are more likely to own stock than other voters, making them a central part of the “investor class.” From the tea party to the rising support for gay marriage and marijuana decriminalization, libertarian-leaning voters are making an impact on politics and policy. We urge pollsters, including the news agencies that commission exit polls, to include a question similar to one used to identify the religious right: “Do you consider yourself to be fiscally conservative and socially liberal, also known as libertarian?” Those who doubt the relevance of the libertarian vote might consult the last commentary in this book, “The Real Swing Voters,” which finds evidence in an August 2012 ABC-Washington Post poll that the truly independent voters still up for grabs lean strongly libertarian.
PART II: COMMENTARIES
More Data on Libertarian Roots of Tea Party by David Kirby
Many analysts have argued that Romney’s pick of Paul Ryan as his VP candidate is a sop to the tea party. And it may be. But I wonder if analysts appreciate exactly what part of the tea party. Last week, Emily Ekins and I published a new Cato Institute study, “Libertarian Roots of the Tea Party,” along with an op-ed in Politico. We argue: 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. The tea party is upending the conventional wisdom that Republican candidates must placate socially conservative voters to win primaries. Increasingly, Republican candidates must win over tea party voters on libertarian economic issues. Yesterday, a separate tea party study adds more data to the picture. Political scientist Ron Rapoport at William and Mary released a report that summarizes the findings of a survey of 12,000 supporters of FreedomWorks (where I am a vice president) carried out from December 2011 to January 2012. Given that Ninety-eight percent of FreedomWorks members are Tea Party identifiers, and almost 13% of all Tea Party identifiers are members of FreedomWorks—the
largest membership contingent for any national Tea Party-related group. Therefore, to understand the Tea Party movement, its dynamics, issue positions, political activity and behavior, understanding FreedomWorks supporters is a good place to start. The report finds: • Libertarians are a significant part of FreedomWorks supporters, comprising about 30% of the group. On both immigration and abortion, libertarians (as reflected in that party’s platforms over the past three elections), take positions quite distinct from the Republican Party and from many other Tea Party supporters. On abortion, libertarians were about 20% less likely to support a constitutional amendment banning abortions, and about 12% less likely to support stricter limits on immigration. • The most important factor in predicting candidate support is libertarian identification. Among libertarians (who comprised almost a third of FreedomWorks supporters), Ron Paul was the top choice, while among others he was at the bottom. • 2008 Paul supporters among FreedomWorks supporters were also distinctive from supporters of any other candidate. Only 40% of them did something for the McCain-Palin ticket in the 2008 general election, compared with 70% of the supporters of every other major nomination candidate from that year. These findings echo our own. Libertarians are significant part of the tea party story, and hold different views on a variety of issues and candidates. However, Rapoport may underestimate the number of libertarians at FreedomWorks, and by implication the tea party more generally. To identify libertarians, Rapoport’s survey asked respondents if they were libertarian, “yes” or “no.” This method yields about 13 percent libertarians in a national sample. However, as David Boaz and I found in our previous studies on libertarian voters,
many people who hold libertarian beliefs are unfamiliar with the word “libertarian.” Using broader questions probing background beliefs, we estimate that libertarians are between 15–24 percent of the electorate—depending on how many and how strict the questions. Using a broader method to identify libertarians, Rapaport’s data may well find the similar 50–50 split to our own data sources. Perhaps Paul Ryan moves tea party libertarians more than conservatives. No doubt Romney’s famously data-driven campaign tested Ryan’s impact on various segments of the electorate. If 2012 becomes a turnout election, Rapaport’s data suggests that tea party libertarians and Ron Paul supporters would otherwise be less inclined to turn out and help than conservative tea partiers. Ryan may well be the presidential politics expression of a “functionally libertarian” candidate. He’s no libertarian, for sure. But by emphasizing fiscal, rather than social issues, he may unite tea partiers, appeal to libertarians and win general election voters concerned about the economy. This article appeared on The Huffington Post on August 14, 2012.
Libertarian Trends in Public Opinion
Voters Want Smaller Government by David Boaz
Pollsters occasionally ask respondents questions along the lines of “Would you say you favor smaller government with fewer services, or larger government with many services?” As might be expected, the economic crisis and the repeated claim that the Bush administration had been tight-fisted and deregulatory moved voters to the left on that question. But not as far as you might think. In 2008 Ramesh Ponnuru summarized some of the latest evidence: CBS pollsters have often asked, “Would you say you favor smaller government with fewer services, or larger government with many services?” On this question there seems to be a pro-government trend over the last dozen years—but we certainly don’t seem to be more pro-government than we were during the Reagan ‘80s. In April 1976 the larger-government side had a four-point lead and in May 1988 a one-point lead. Polls from 1996 through Jan. 2001 showed an average lead of 20 points for the smaller-government side. By November 2003, however, the smaller-government side led by only 3 points, and in the latest poll (March– April) the sides are tied. The same pattern shows up in the results of a similar Washington Post /ABC poll question. People swung to a smaller-government view in the 1990s and then swung back, but the results from June 2008 (50–45 percent for smaller government) are roughly the same as those from July 1988 (49–45). But other indicators do not even find a clear pro-government trend for the last decade. Gallup, as well as ABC and the Washington Post , has asked for many years whether Americans think that government “is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses” or “should do more to solve our country’s problems.” Almost always most people fall on the conservative
side of that question: in September 1992 by an eight-point margin; in October 1998 by 12 points; in September 2002 by 7 points; and in September 2008 by 12 points. I’ve always thought the “smaller government” question is incomplete. It offers respondents a benefit of larger government—“more services” —but it doesn’t mention that the cost of “larger government with more services” is higher taxes. The question ought to give both the cost and the benefit for each option. A few years ago a Rasmussen poll did ask the question that way. The results were that 64 percent of voters said that they prefer smaller government with fewer services and lower taxes, while only 22 percent would rather see a more active government with more services and higher taxes. (I know some people are skeptical of Rasmussen’s polling. A Republican consulting firm recently found results very similar to the Rasmussen poll. So I invite Gallup, Harris, the New York Times , the Washington Post , and other pollsters to ask this more balanced question and see what results they get.) The Rasmussen Poll also showed a shift to the big-government side in the wake of the economic crisis. In late September of 2008 respondents supported smaller government by only 57 to 31 percent—or about 20 points more than Obama’s margin over McCain. It was a lesson that the victorious Democrats might have heeded. Instead, they moved full steam ahead on an agenda of spending, stimulus, and the health care takeover. And they revived the small-government constituency. A January 2 0 1 0 Washington Post -ABC News poll found that respondents favored smaller government by 58 to 38 percent. Reporter Dan Balz noted: The poll also shows how much ground Obama has lost during his first year of trying to convince the public that more government is the answer to the country’s problems. By 58 percent to 38 percent, Americans said that they prefer smaller government and fewer services to larger government with more services. Since he won the Democratic nomination in June 2008, the margin between
those favoring smaller over larger government has moved in Post-ABC polls from five points to 20 points. Writers in the establishment media, such as E. J. Dionne Jr. and Ezra Klein, kept insisting that President Obama is moderate or centrist, contrary to the claims of us hysterics who think that a trillion-dollar increase in annual spending, $4 trillion in new debt, a government takeover of two automobile companies, a complete government takeover of health care (which the president preferred but couldn’t get out of Congress), and sweeping new financial regulation that doesn’t reform the easymoney and housing-preference policies that caused the financial crisis is a pretty statist agenda. But it looks like the American people see a big gap between the kind of government they want and the kind they think President Obama wants. A 2011 Washington Post-ABC News poll found that there has been little change in the widespread public perception that Obama favors a bigger federal government that offers more services. That highlights a major disconnect between Obama and the public. Only 38 percent of those polled say they favor a larger government with more services, while 56 percent say they favor a smaller government with fewer services. As depicted in this graphic:
Voters understand that President Obama favors larger government. Duh. And they don’t. A year later the Washington Post reported: Most Americans in a new Washington Post -ABC News poll want a shrunken federal government, and most believe Romney wants that too. …Support for “smaller government” is up significantly in recent years, and marks a pivotal issue where voters view Obama as far out of step with public opinion. The striking thing, of course, is that voters think Romney supports smaller government. It’s not a conclusion they could draw from his fiscal record as governor, or from his Massachusetts health care plan, or from his current position on budget cuts, or even from his running mate’s budget proposal. I think you have to conclude that voters believe Mitt Romney wants smaller government because President Obama keeps telling them so. Voters have a better sense of Obama’s own preferences: 73 percent say he wants larger government. You’ve got to wonder about the 15 percent who think he wants smaller government, though. Which words in that simple question do they not understand? And remember, swing voters support smaller government by even higher percentages.
Compiled from Cato@Liberty.org blog posts published on November 5, 2008; January 17, 2010; September 6, 2011; and August 27, 2012.
The Libertarian Trend by David Boaz
There’s been lots of talk lately about a turn to the right in American politics. President Obama’s declining poll numbers, the sharp rise in opposition to his health-care plan during 2009, the growth of the grass-roots Tea Party movement, and the polls predicting a Republican takeover of the House of Representatives all point to a resurgence of conservatism in the electorate. But as I noted last year, there are also trends in the direction of social tolerance these days. Some indeed have described current political trends as a libertarian resurgence. California voters are getting ready to vote on a marijuana legalization initiative, and polls show rising support. The New York Times points to other signs of change on the marijuana front: Pot has already become essentially legal for anyone in California who can tell a medical marijuana clinic that it would make him feel better. Attorney General Eric Holder has said that the federal government would back off its attempt to enforce the federal laws against medical marijuana in the 13 states that have legalized medical use. The threats to prosecute Michael Phelps for a bong hit were widely ridiculed. Those developments have led Andrew Sullivan, Jacob Weisberg, and CBS News to speculate about a “tipping point” for change—at last—in marijuana prohibition. Meanwhile, TPM and AOL’s PoliticsDaily also see a tipping point for marriage equality. A majority of New Yorkers now join Gov. David Paterson in supporting same-sex marriage. That same ABC News/Washington Post poll finds that “in 2004, just 32 percent of Americans favored gay marriage, with 62 percent opposed. Now 49 percent support it versus 46 percent opposed—the first time in ABC/Post polls that supporters have outnumbered opponents.” Since the passage of California’s Proposition 8 in 2008, several states and the District of Columbia have granted marriage rights to same-sex couples.
This chart, prepared for me by Garrett Reim, shows recent trends in public opinion polls on several issues—support for smaller government, marriage equality, and marijuana legalization along with opposition to President Obama’s health care plan and to the job the president is doing. The latter two have moved more sharply, but all five lines move at least marginally in a libertarian direction:
Longer-term charts would show more of a trend on marijuana and marriage. See Nate Silver’s chart on rising support for marijuana legalization over the past 20 years. And here are three depictions of rising support for marriage equality over the past 15 to 20 years.
As some analysts have noticed, what’s going on in American politics is a shift in a libertarian direction. This chart provides some more evidence. Posted on October 28, 2010 on Cato@Liberty.org.
New Polls Show Libertarian Trends on Marriage, Marijuana, Guns by David Boaz
Many commentators have seen a shift to the right in American politics over the past two years—the reaction to spending, bailouts, and Obamacare; the rise in conservative self-identification in polls; the 2010 elections. But there’s another trend going on as well. I described it in 2009 as a “civil liberties surge.” And this week there’s new evidence. A new study from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press finds longterm growth in support for legal abortion, gun rights, marijuana legalization, and gay marriage. They’re all still divisive issues. But support in the Pew (and General Social Survey) polls for marijuana legalization has risen from 16 percent in 1990 to 2011:
(And with Pat Robertson on board, how long can other conservatives hold out?)
Support for Second Amendment rights has risen substantially since the 1990s, and has not fallen in the aftermath of the Tucson shootings. Opposition to gay marriage has moved from 65–27 in 1996 to 46–45 in Pew’s new poll. The trend is even stronger in this presentation of the latest General Social Survey results:
Source: Darren Sherkat, http://iranianredneck.wordpress.com/2011/02/25/supportfor-and-opposition-to-same-sex-marriage-1988-2010/. Marriage equality was defeated in California in 2008, and yet within just a few months of President Obama’s election, gay marriage became legal in several states, and the trend is continuing. The once-again-heavily Republican legislature in New Hampshire, one of the most libertarian states, decided to put off a marriage repeal bill until 2012 after a poll found that only 29 percent of voters supported repeal. The overwhelmingly Republican State Senate in rugged-individualist Wyoming rejected a bill to ban recognition of out-of-state gay marriages. Liberal Maryland is debating a marriage bill.
Despite the failure of a marijuana legalization initiative in California in 2010, perhaps reflecting the preponderance of older voters at the polls, reformers are still optimistic. We may see legalization initiatives in Colorado, Washington and Oregon in 2011 and 2012—and possibly in California again. A number of mega-millionaires from Silicon Valley made contributions to Proposition 19, suggesting a new funding base. Drug reformers were disappointed that no major newspaper in California supported Proposition 19 but heartened that most of them did acknowledge the need for reform. Time is on the side of both marijuana and marriage reformers. One striking point in all these polls, of course, is the age difference. An ABC News/ Washington Post poll “showed just how much of the movement is occurring among younger voters. Support for gay marriage has grown somewhat among voters over age 65, from 15 percent to 28 percent, but six in 10 remain strongly opposed. Among those under 35, though, two-thirds support it, up from 53 percent in 2006, and nearly half support it strongly.” And “[s]upport for legalizing small amounts of marijuana for personal use is nearly twice as high among young adults (57 percent of those under 30) as seniors (30 percent), with middle-aged Americans split about evenly.” Obama carried young voters by 2 to 1. If the Republicans get out front on opposing marriage equality and marijuana reform, they can make that a permanent Democratic majority. These new poll results should be no surprise. Part of the American project for more than 200 years has been extending the promises of the Declaration of Independence— life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—to more and more people. America is a country fundamentally shaped by libertarian values and attitudes. In their book It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States, Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marx write, “The American ideology, stemming from the [American] Revolution, can be subsumed in five words: antistatism, laissezfaire, individualism, populism, and egalitarianism.” If Herbert McClosky and John
Zaller are right that “[t]he principle here is that every person is free to act as he pleases, so long as his exercise of freedom does not violate the equal rights of others,” then marriage equality and marijuana freedom are only a matter of time. And none of these socially liberal results challenge the general perception of a conservative trend, as long as that trend is understood as a reaction to bailouts, takeovers, and other elements of “big government.” Americans continue to tell pollsters they prefer “smaller government with fewer services” to “larger government with more services.” And when you remind people that the cost of “more services” is “higher taxes,” the results get even stronger. So the good news for libertarians is that there are libertarian trends in public opinion on a wide range of issues. The bad news is that some of those trends are in response to the massive expansion of government of the Bush-Obama years. This article appeared on Britannica Blog on March 7, 2011.
Poll Finds a Libertarian Shift by David Boaz
Polling wizard Nate Silver of the New York Times today points to a couple of poll questions that David Kirby and I have often employed and finds some welcome new results, along with a great graph: Since 1993, CNN has regularly asked a pair of questions that touch on libertarian views of the economy and society: Some people think the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses. Others think that government should do more to solve our country’s problems. Which comes closer to your own view? Some people think the government should promote traditional values in our society. Others think the government should not favor any particular set of values. Which comes closer to your own view? A libertarian, someone who believes that the government is best when it governs least, would typically choose the first view in the first question and the second view in the second. In the polls, the responses to both questions had been fairly steady for many years. The economic question has showed little long-term trend, although tolerance for governmental intervention rose following the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The social libertarian viewpoint—that government should not favor any particular set of values—has gained a couple of percentage points since the 1990s but not more than that. But in CNN’s latest version of the poll, conducted earlier this month, the libertarian response to both questions reached all-time highs. Some 63 percent of
respondents said government was doing too much— up from 61 percent in 2010 and 52 percent in 2008—while 50 percent said government should not favor any particular set of values, up from 44 percent in 2010 and 41 percent in 2008. (It was the first time that answer won a plurality in CNN’s poll.) Here’s a graphic representation of the data he’s discussing, updated with 2012 results:
Check out that increase in the past few years! Kirby and I used those same two poll questions in our studies beginning with “The Libertarian Vote .” Like Gallup, we combined responses to the two questions in a matrix, finding in 2009 (in “The Libertarian Vote in the Age of Obama ”) that 23 percent of the public held libertarian views. Adding them, as Silver has done, seems much more fun. Posted on June 20, 2011 on Cato@Liberty.org.