I’m late getting to David Boaz and David Kirby’s TCS piece on the libertarian vote, which takes a look at the 2006 elections in the context of their recent Cato study. They point out that Libertarian Party candidates appear to have cost the Republicans the Senate by winning more votes than the Democratic margin of victory in Montana and Missouri (assuming that the balance of those votes would have gone to the Republican candidates). More controversially, they assert that libertarians are swing voters whose shifting allegiances endanger a government-happy GOP in the long term.
As an opponent of big-government conservatism, I’d like to believe that there is a politically significant group of libertarian voters ready to punish both parties for pandering to the more statist elements of their bases. But Boaz and Kirby don’t quite convince me.
For starters, there is the problem of definitions. Is someone who is fiscally conservative but socially liberal necessarily a libertarian? A libertarian may favor keeping embryonic stem-cell research legal but a social liberal wants fund it with taxpayer dollars. A libertarian may favor abolishing sodomy laws but a social liberal wants to use government power to prevent private discrimination against homosexuals. (See John Tabin’s recent liberaltarians column.)
That’s just the social issues. Some self-described fiscal conservatives favor tax increases, and in some cases even higher marginal rates, to balance the budget. Others would be willing to tolerate deficit-financed tax cuts. Which of these positions is libertarian?
Definitions aside, do libertarians really play a pivotal electoral role? According to Boaz and Kirby, George W. Bush did much better with libertarians in 2000 than in 2004. But he did better with the electorate as a whole in the second election. GOP congressional candidates did 24 points worse among libertarians in 2006 than 2002. But Republicans actually did better with libertarians in 2006, when they lost the electorate as a whole, than in 2004, when they gained seats. And despite the swings big-government conservatism has apparently caused, Republicans continue to win the libertarian vote by double-digit margins.
What am I missing?
UPDATE: The other day on The Corner, Ramesh Ponnuru also noticed that libertarians seem to have swung slightly more Republican this year compared to 2004. Today, he posts an update from David Kirby saying that the sample sizes are too small to make that claim with any confidence. That doesn’t affect my points much, but it’s worth noting.