Posted by Brad @ 8:23 pm on February 25th 2007

The Libertarian Vote in 2006 and Beyond

So it turns out that this guy turned the Senate blue:

It usually takes a few months after an election before the hacks get bored of trying to read their agendas into electoral results, and the academics and historians start in. It feels like much of this discussion has already been passed by, but I want to return to it, in part, because our blog is new, and as I said early when we started, going into 2008 I want to lay down some precepts and operating assumptions, and some bases for my own perspective on what the Republicans are not doing, and what the Democrats should be.

Specifically, I would argue that libertarianism, all along its spectrum, remains an enormously powerful potential electoral draw, depending on how it is played. Both parties can credibly stake some claims to it. And both parties have reason, if not always ability, to do just that. That’s something that I intend to keep a careful eye on in the coming months.


In 2006, we know that a lot of very close races went Democratic at a margin less than the votes won by the Libertarian candidate. This is the kind of “explicit” evidence of spoilerism that is often used.

For example:

Missouri Senate

McCaskill (D) 1,047,049 50

Talent (R) 1,001,238 47

Gilmour (L) 47,504 2

Montana Senate

Tester (D) 198,302 49

Burns (R) 195,455 48

Jones (L) 10,324 3

Stan Jones being the above pictured Blue Libertarian.

Control the Senate, it could be read, was directly influenced by Libertarian candidates (this is a bit of a stretch, based on the model that Libertarian voters would probably break overwhelmingly GOP if pushed to one of the two parties, but it’s probably true that a strong showing in Montana certainly put Tester over the top (there is a bigger reason why Tester won, of course, which is the subject of this post, but more on that later).

Some house races:


Hill (D) 110,185 50

Sodrel (R) 100,503 46

Schansberg (L) 9,920 4

Directly responsible for the flip of the seat, and some more that made for tight, tight races:


Doolittle (R) 104,746 49

Brown (D) 97,217 46

Warren (L) 10,668 5


Shays (R) 106,558 51

Farrell (D) 99,913 48

Maymin (L) 2,998 1


Ferguson (R) 95,830 49

Stender (D) 92,591 48

Abrams (I) 3,064 2

Young (L) 1,989 1


Porter (R) 102,176 48

Hafen (D) 98,210 47

Hansen (I) 5,326 3

Silvestri (L) 5,155 2


Cubin (R) 93,336 48

Trauner (D) 92,324 48

Rankin (L) 7,481 4

Kos pointed all this out a few weeks ago, with this note:

One of the under-reported factors for the Democratic victories in 2006 was the spoiler effect that the Libertarian Party played.

The theocon and neocon takeover of the Republican Party has left many of its more Libertarian members adrift with few alternatives. I clearly hope the Democratic Party becomes more Libertarian friendly over the coming years.

All that is fair enough.

But, the CATO institute has been crunching the numbers (obviously, they have an agenda too), and it matches with the Kossian “Libertarian Democrat” hunch about the 2006 swing. They’ve released some findings (also a bit old now), that can be read in full here.

The gist, though, is that not just a very small fringe of GOPers voted Libertarian and swung some races, but that a much larger (and, in some ways, mushier and thus more easily overlooked) voting bloc of people who, for years, have been a much under-appreciated but still key member of the Republican coalition since Reagan, have begun swinging hard to the Democrats. That’s been spoken about since 2002 or so, but the data that comes back is making it harder and harder to ignore.

But the striking fact in our data analysis is what happened in 2004. The libertarian vote for Bush dropped from 72 to 59 percent, while the libertarian vote for the Democratic nominee almost doubled. Itís not hard to imagine why. Bushís record on federal spending, centralization of education, expansion of entitlements, the war in Iraq, executive authority, the federal marriage amendment, and civil liberties was certainly sufficient to dissuade many libertarian voters. Sen. John F. Kerry offered little for libertarians other than “not Bush.” He voted for the war and the Patriot Act, never articulated a clear alternative position on either, and offered standard Democratic support for higher taxes and spending. Nevertheless, he narrowed the Republican majority among libertarians from 52 points to 21 points.

After two more years of war, wiretapping, and welfare-state social spending, we found similar patterns in 2006. In the Zogby survey, 59 percent of libertarians voted for Republican candidates for Congress, and 36 percent voted for Democrats. Comparing those results to the last off-year election in 2002, we find a 24 percentage point swing to the Democrats. That is, libertarians voted for Republican congressional candidates by a margin of 47 percentage points in 2002, and of only 23 points in 2006.

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.

After the 2000 election Karl Rove was convinced that 4 million Christian evangelicals had stayed home, and he was determined to get them to the polls in 2004. By our calculations, Republicans carried the libertarian vote by 5.5 million votes in the off-year election of 2002 and by only 2.9 million votes in 2006. Thatís a swing of 2.6 million libertarian voters. Remember, it takes two new base voters to replace one swing voter who switches from one party to the other. Rove and his colleagues should have been watching out for the libertarian vote as well.

Libertarians who said the war in Iraq was the most important issue voted 64-31 for Democratic congressional candidates. Libertarians who stuck with Republican candidates were most likely to describe terrorism or security as the most important issue. Libertarians for whom federal spending was the most important issue were most likely to vote for third-party candidates: 39 percent Democratic, 38 percent Republican, 22 percent other. Itís a sad commentary on todayís Republican Party when its candidates do so poorly among voters concerned about federal spending.

Republicans should be particularly troubled about their standing with young voters, including young libertarian voters. Voters in the 18–34 age groups are more likely than voters over 55 to be libertarian, and the younger libertarians voted more Democratic.

There’s a lot there to unpack, but the key points are:

1. Libertarian voters are not just increasingly dissatisfied with the GOP, but are increasingly actively swinging to the Democratic party, in numbers large enough to not just throw elections, but to make them one of the most significant swing blocs of recent years (above the much-revered “evangelical” votes, or Hispanics, or whoever). That, and:

2. The Republican branding among young Libertarian-leaning voters, which was a key factor for the Republican party that allowed them to build successes in the 80s to outright majorities in the 90s, has been damaged, I would say probably irrevocably (at least for a generation).

And, of course, that poses significant political problems for the GOP for any number of reasons, but here is a subtle, but significant, one. It changes the character of their base, who they have to play to in primaries, from an often Libertarian-leaning bloc (think of the success of people like Steve Forbes as a primary candidate in the 90s), to an explicitly (and increasingly hostile) social conservative neocon one (think of Sam Brownback), an almost anti-Libertarian base. Even candidates who might, socially, appeal to Libertarians (Rudy), are about as statist as you can get in most other respects. And, perhaps most saliently, may HAVE to be as a precondition for Republican support, given the current makeup and direction of the declining Republican base.

The ability for the Republicans to keep the Libertarian bloc in their base is getting harder and harder to pull off, as Adam and I talked about a lot in 2004, and if that’s the case, they’re going to have to tap-dance to a more and more fringe core, which will in turn alienate more and more libertarian voters as the Democratic party happily swallows them up, and which will probably further decimate them electorally, at least in the very short term. I said, last year, that I thought the next president would be a Republican. But given the dynamics of their primary process that are shaking up, I’m not so sure that even somebody as socially liberal and widely respected as Rudy or McCain can survive a primary process that demands of them increasingly whackier and whackier triangulation. You see it already with John McCain. What made him an attractive general election candidate in the first place, is now something he has to essentially devote the next year to actively and vigorously dissembling.

What’s more, though it won’t happen without a significant amount of turbulence (and in some quarters active resistence), the widely glowing reception of say Jim Webb’s Democratic response to the SOTU speech, as well as the Democratic Congress’s current agendas, seems a good sign that the Democrats are going to be taking Libertarians seriously (whether they like it or not). This isn’t out of the goodness of their hearts, of course, but look at some other 2006 results:

Republicans can win the South without libertarians. But this was the year that New Hampshire and the Mountain West turned purple if not blue, and libertarians played a big role there. New Hampshire may be the most libertarian state in the country; its license plates read “Live Free or Die,” and its senators are strong fiscal conservatives who both voted against the Federal Marriage Amendment. But this year both the stateís Republican congressmen lost, and both houses of the state legislature went Democratic for the first time since 1874.

Meanwhile, in the Goldwateresque, “leave us alone” Mountain West, Republicans not only lost a Montana Senate seat; they also lost the governorship of Colorado, two House seats in Arizona, and one in Colorado. They had close calls in the Arizona Senate race and House races in Idaho, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, and Dick Cheney’s Wyoming. In libertarian Nevada, the Republican candidate for governor won a plurality but not a majority against a Democrat who promised to keep the government out of guns, abortion, and gay marriage. Arizona also became the first state to vote down a state constitutional amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman.

Of course, if you had to list the likely key swing states of a 2008 presidential election, it would probably be almost identical to that list right there (NH, NM, CO in particular, and not without an eye for NV, MT, AZ) , plus Ohio (and, it’s worth noting that the Democratic decision to have their convention in Denver was at least in part explicitly decided on the grounds of a likely Mountain West strategy). Interestingly as well, the key states for the 2008 Senate picture are going to be places like New Hampshire, Maine, South Dakota, North Carolina.

In short, an eye towards long term expansion of a Democratic electorate would simply be unable to ignore the attractiveness of a strategy that would, in all probability, include geographic strategies focused on the rust belt and mountain west, and ideological strategies focused on slopping up more and more small-government, interventionist-cynical, civil liberty thumping schemas. The Republicans, on the other hand, have maybe run away from their libertarian roots for an election cycle too long, and are going to have a really tough time juggling the electorate they’re losing (lost), and the electorate they’re stuck with.

This potential throwing-together of Libertarians and Democrats doesn’t necessarily please a lot of Libertarians, stuck as they can be on ideological purity and party ID. Nor does it necessarily please a lot of Democrats, who still reflexively, though perhaps not altogether unfairly, think of Libertarians as Trojan Horse Republicans (see a valiant effort to extend that dialogue here). But of course, we’re not talking about winning over the hard core black helicopter libertarian purists. The better way to think about it (and not the LP way, which is why they suck these days) is to think of libertarianism as a spectrum, not a designation. There is Pure Libertarianism at one far end, and you don’t have to go all the way there to start picking up votes.

I don’t think that the Democratic party will become the Libertarian party anytime soon, nor would it be in their interests to do so. I DO think, though, that the more they reach towards it, the more they start shoring up their constituency, expanding their electorate, and branding themselves positively for other swing groups–which is, indeed, exactly what they’re doing–the more likely they are to start performing as a majority party again. The danger for them is that if they reach TOO far, they risk losing their own base, but even their base has been reactively moving towards a lot of libertarian principles. Indeed, there are a fair few people at the traditional Democratic fringes who sound an awful lot like Libertarians these days, and as that’s the case, the farther the Democrats can keep reaching, and the more success that has (it has already had a lot more than might be casually apparent), the farther that pulls the party.

Almost the opposite has been proving to be the case for the GOP, because they’ve not been willing to make any reaches whatsover, so they’ve been losing the fringe AND entrenching and making less pliant their own core.

To put that last point another way, when Republicans lose the 20% of their base that is libertarian-minded, they have both rendered themselves a 30% party, AND a party whose 30% is the farthest from libertarianism on the spectrum. There’s a point when failure with a significant voting bloc becomes self-supporting (think the Democrats and the South). It’s a fairly nasty cycle, but from those of us who have been bemoaning the death of personal responsibility, small government, civil liberty, non-interventionist foreign policy, not one without it’s own upside. That being that it puts us back in a position of being a swing bloc, rather than a bloc that Republicans don’t give a shit about because they’ve had for a long time, and Democrats don’t give a shit about because Republicans have had for a long time. It starts squaring libertarianism back into the center of the public debate, after almost a decade of it being lost in the wilderness.

The point is, Democrats will be preoccupied with their presidential field for the next great while, but in the back of their minds, they need to be thinking about rebuilding a winning coalition that will outlast and bleed through simply having a charismatic presidential candidate. There are a few directions they could choose to go, but trying to reach out towards libertarian-oriented strategies would be near the top of a very short list of long term projects. As for libertarians, we’ll see how Ron Paul does–and how the LP does with him–but I think most of us small l’s ought to be taking a long hard look at the Democratic party as a new place to roost. So long as those of us interested in libertarian-leaning ideologies keeping a place at the table are able to get past a few decades worth of anti-Democratic indoctrination (much of it, btw, accurate for the time), the picture is not entirely without reason for optimism.

These are bleak times for libertarianism, perhaps, but also not without opportunities. The Republicans might have to decide to cast off the disproportionate pull of their Christian socons and begin reaching for candidates that WON’T polarize the great bulk of the electorate (50+1 doesn’t work as well when you start at 30 instead of 45), and the Democrats, meanwhile, might have to realize the enormous coup they’ve already seeded, and could begin to harvest if they were willing to. You’ll see me pounding hard at this theme as the next electoral cycle gets going, seeking out like-minded Libertarian Democrats (one such, Freedom Democrats, that got all this out before I did) as well as opportunities for Libertarians to expand their reach, either within dying too-often-ignored reaches of the Republican core (Ron Paul), or elsewhere. But I wanted to put out early that this perspective of mine isn’t just an emotive desire on my part, but one backed, now, by some pretty compelling electoral evidence.


  1. I’m not sure how that linked article constitutes a “valiant effort” in any way. It’s basically someone ranting Libertarians don’t know the origins of their thought. Well, fuck face, I’ll tell you the origins of mine. I was a kid in maybe second grade, and my mom explained how taxes work. “You mean they FORCE you to pay, and you have no choice?!” I asked? The roots of my thought were about personal rights and freedom. I could not fathom the idea that the government forced people to give up their property. I didn’t really hear the term “libertarian” (or at least I didn’t have any idea I was one) until about a year ago, when paint identified that in me.

    I hate these pompous assholes, trying to tell Libetarians that we don’t know our history, and portraying us as “naive” or whatever. If there’s any political group that has to constantly assess the soundness of its economic theory, it’s us, every time we argue with socialists. All the years I thought I was a Democrat, I never once genuinely questioned anything. I just believed the Republicans were these stupid vile bad guys. I think most college kids are the same way. So when people say we Libertarians, who are practically defined by our political agenda know less about it then they, I just say, “Hmph…whatever, chump.”

    Incidentally, I saw that Stan Jones guy at the Libertarian National Convention last summer in Portland. I was just sitting in this room watching a FSP presentation, when there he was, seated ahead of me. I couldn’t help but think back to his Daily Show interview, where she asked him, “Stan Jones…why so blue?”

    Comment by weltschmerz — 2/26/2007 @ 7:02 pm

  2. Ah, Montana. The only thing that could stop them re-electing a virtually disgraced political hack was a crazy ‘one world government’ nut who turned his own skin blue in response to fears about millenium bug.

    Comment by Adam — 2/26/2007 @ 7:16 pm

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