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Hot-Tub Libertarians

By Ryan Sager

As the Republican Party abandons its commitment to small government, how politically impotent are libertarians? Let me count the ballots.

Specifically, let me count the ballots from 2004. Exit polls (along with, well, all polls) tend to ignore libertarians as a group, so one has to approach such questions from the side, as opposed to head on. But here's one measure of how libertarian-leaning voters voted in the last presidential election: While George W. Bush gained 10 points between 2000 and 2004 among voters who thought government should "do more," he stayed essentially even among voters who felt government should not do more or should "do less."

In other words, 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. (I should know. I did, too.)

That's no way for an organized voting bloc to behave. If no amount of sticking your finger in a constituency's eye will make them vote against you, you're going to poke through until you hit brain. But, of course, no one ever said that libertarians were organized -- or that, when it comes to politics, they have much in the way of brains.

But what if they did? How powerful a voting bloc could they be?

It's a tough question, and one libertarians have spent far too little time effort researching, but there's a quick and dirty answer: somewhere between 9 percent and 20 percent of the electorate.

The 20 percent figure comes from Gallup, which labels as libertarian voters who say they oppose the use of government either to "promote traditional values" or to "do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses." Gallup finds an equal number of populists (people who want more government intervention in both the economy and the culture). And it finds that 27 percent of Americans are conservative and 24 percent are liberal.

The 9 percent figure comes by way of a recent analysis done by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Last month, Pew released an analysis, based on a survey of 2,000 people, which was aimed at finding the ideologues among the American voting public -- those voters who held consistent ideological views on a sampling of subjects, such as health care, gay marriage and Social Security reform.

Libertarians were the smallest group, as defined by Pew, followed by conservatives (15 percent), populists (16 percent) and liberals (18 percent). A full 42 percent of voters held no identifiable ideology (these are presumably the people who vote for whomever's tallest).

Perhaps the most interesting fact in the Pew survey, however, was that less than 6 in 10 libertarians voted for Bush in 2004. While few libertarians seem to have deserted the president between 2000 and 2004, they are split roughly evenly between the two parties. The Pew survey finds 50 percent of libertarians identifying as Republicans, 41 percent as Democrats.

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.

Is there any way to reverse the tide?

That, of course, gets to the question of whether a bunch of individualists can ever be organized. A man who should know a little about that, the Cato Institute's executive vice president, David Boaz, tells two stories. In one, a man wouldn't come to a rally for 1980 Libertarian Party presidential candidate Ed Clark because he had to look at his sister-in-law's car. In another, a man skipped a rally at the 1984 Democratic convention in San Francisco because he had a more pressing engagement ... in a hot tub.

"I think libertarians are looking at their sister-in-law's car, instead of going to political meetings," Boaz says. "And there are also libertarians who are in hot tubs in Sausalito." These may seem like small things, Boaz argues, but the cumulative effect is that people who don't care much for government are the hardest to convince to care about changing it.

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.

Ryan Sager (rhsager.com) is author of “The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party.”

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