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Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Are libertarians stuck at the hot tub party?

In an interesting article over at Real Clear Politics, Ryan Sager asks the question:

As the Republican Party abandons its commitment to small government, how politically impotent are libertarians?
Pretty damn, would be my answer.

Sager points to some fascinating statistics from the 2004 presidential election. First, exit polls showed that the number of Bush voters who felt government should not do more, or that it should do less, was approximately the same as it was in 2000. Using that as a rough definition of libertarianism, Sager says this means that

despite No Child Left Behind, campaign-finance regulation, steel tariffs, the Medicare prescription-drug bill and exploding government spending generally, libertarians stood by their man.
In otherwords, there ain't much the Republicans could do that would make those voters bolt the party. To put it in libertarian terms, the GOP has absolutely no incentive whatsoever to court these voters. To put it in terms of political impotence, the GOP doesn't have to pay any attention at all to these voters. It don't get no impotenter that that.

Two other fascinating facts come from a recently released Pew Center survey of 2,000 voters. The survey showed that only about 60% of those whom the Center considered to be libertarians voted for Bush in 2004. Additionally, only 50% of libertarians identified themselves as Republicans, with 41% identifying as Democrats. Sager thinks this finding is extremely significant:

Given that libertarians' traditional home has been in the conservative base of the Republican Party for about five decades, as part of a strained partnership with social conservatives, their almost 50-50 split between the two parties today is big news.

According to Pew's "political typology," libertarians used to be one of three groups that made up the Republican Party, along with social conservatives and economic conservatives. But, since 1994, they've been replaced by a group of voters Pew has called Populists, but most recently renamed Pro-Government Conservatives. In essence, it would seem, these Pro-Government Conservatives -- about 10 percent of the electorate, largely female and southern, and equally at ease with universal health care and banning controversial books from libraries -- are squeezing libertarians further and further toward the fringes of the GOP.

So it seems that although the GOP knows it can reliably count on a little over half of the libertarian vote pretty much regardless of who the establishment selects party members nominate, it also needs to realize that just under half of libertarians not only aren't voting for its ticket, but consider themselves friendly to its main opposition.

Sager notes that libertarians make up anywhere from 9-20% of the electorate, depending on the survey. This means that in 2004, the Republicans lost the votes of roughly 4-8% of those who historically were overwhelmingly likely to consider themselves aligned with the GOP. As recent elections show, 4-8% of the electorate ain't nothing to sneeze at.

In Sager's mind, libertarians can become more "potent" if they somehow can just band together and not split up between the Dems and Reps:
The challenge, then -- for those who don't want to see the Republican Party succumb once and for all to big-government conservatism and who don't want to see it become overrun with populists lacking in respect for taxpayers' money and individuals' right to be left alone -- is either to organize existing libertarians more effectively to vote and contribute time and money as a bloc or to identify new constituencies with an overriding interest in remaking the time bomb we call the New Deal (everyone under 40 comes to mind).

So, libertarians: It's time to get out of that hot tub! Put down that wrench! And start thinking about how you're going to reclaim your rightful place in the conservative coalition.

Here's where we disagree.

Let's assume that 4-8% we were talking about party hopped because of GOP positions on social issues. (I have no evidence for this, but it seems a reasonable assumption, no?) If these people feel strongly enough about these issues to join the party least likely to match their economic views, there's no way in hell they're "coming home" to the modern avatar of the Republican party unless the party fundamentally alters its relationship with fundamentalists. And it's here that the libertarians lose the numbers game, at least as long as 60% of them will seemingly vote Republican regardless of in what direction the party moves. To do what it would have to do to get these Democratic libertarians to come its way, the GOP would more than likely lose much of its vaunted "base," a loss that would hurt it far more than losing those libertarians does.

Maybe I'm overly pessimistic, or maybe a significant slice of the "GOP forever" libertarians will suddenly decide that they don't have enough in common with other party elements to keep voting with them (as I did ten years ago, when I realized that "this party sucks," and split). But until this political Cialis takes effect, libertarians as a group will have about as much political clout as people who give Porter Goss as a reference.

We might as well keep kickin' it in the hot tub.

(Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan.)

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