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The Libertarian Vote: How Big Is It?

in Elections and Politics, Liberator Online by James W. Harris Comments are off

(From the Activist Ammunition section in Volume 20, No. 14 of the Liberator Online. Subscribe here!)

Now that Rand Paul has officially announced he is seeking the presidency, attention is being focused on the libertarian voting bloc. Just how big is it? How many libertarian-minded voters are out there?

The answer may surprise you.

First, it’s important to note that “libertarian voter” doesn’t necessarily mean a voter who meets the stricter definition of a libertarian, i.e., someone who consistently opposes the initiation of force. Rather, it refers to someone who would be inclined to vote for a libertarian candidate in an election. Someone who is more supportive of libertarian ideas than liberal, conservative, statist or centrist ideas.

Different organizations have used different methods to determine the size of this libertarian bloc. And they’ve come up with some pretty consistent estimates.

* For 20 years Gallup’s annual Governance Survey has divided voters into liberal, conservative, libertarian, or populist, based on their answers to two questions:

  1. “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?”
  2. “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?”


In their 2014 survey Gallup classified 24% of respondents as libertarian (with 27% conservative, 21% liberal, and 18% populist). This is hardly a rigorous political litmus test, but it may well help single out voters who might be sympathetic to libertarianism.

  • The Cato Institute’s David Boaz has done a lot of work on this over the years, including an important 2012 book (with David Kirby Emily Ekins) that summarizes numerous polls by Cato and others on the topic: The Libertarian Vote: Swing Voters, Tea Parties, and the Fiscally Conservative, Socially Liberal Center.
    They conclude that, depending on the criteria used, roughly 15-18% of voters can be classified as “libertarian voters.”
  • A 2006 Zogby poll, commissioned by Cato, found surprising results. Zogby asked half of a group of 1,012 people who had voted in the 2006 election: “Would you describe yourself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal?” Fully 59% of the respondents said “yes.”
    Zogby asked the other half a more challenging question: “Would you describe yourself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal, also known as libertarian?” A surprising 44% of respondents — representing 100 million Americans — answered “yes” to that question, thus self-identifying as libertarians. This is obviously higher than the number of true libertarians in America, but certainly it at least indicates that millions of people are open to these ideas and this label.
  • Finally, here’s an often-overlooked but remarkable finding — based on the Advocates’ World’s Smallest Political Quiz. In August 2000 Rasmussen gave the World’s Smallest Political Quiz to nearly 1,000 representative American voters. The Quiz is a far more rigorous test of one’s libertarian leanings than “fiscally conservative and socially liberal” or other looser definitions used by polling firms. Yet fully 16% scored in the libertarian sector then — a figure closely matching to the other estimates we’ve cited.

What can we conclude? While the numbers and the criteria in these studies vary, at the very least there is broad agreement on a figure between 15% to 20%. That’s 30 to 40 million voters — a huge, and growing, voting bloc that could easily swing an election.

Add to this the additional millions on the left, right, and center who may vote for a libertarian-leaning candidate who stresses issues of great importance to them — such as a more peaceful foreign policy, marijuana re-legalization, slashing taxes, and reforming the out-of-control surveillance state.

Which brings us back to Rand Paul’s presidential run announcement. Rand Paul doesn’t claim to be a libertarian. He has described himself as “libertarian-ish” and in 2013 told Sean Hannity “I use the term constitutional conservative, but I also use the term libertarian conservative. … I accept all of those terms if they mean they believe in limited government and more individual liberty.”

But he is certainly the most libertarian-inclined presidential candidate — outside the Libertarian Party — in memory. Cato’s Boaz notes in TIME what may well be the most important thing to come out of a Rand Paul campaign:

“One result of his campaign will be to help those tens of millions of libertarian-leaning Americans to discover that their political attitudes have a name, which will make for a stronger and more influential political faction. … Libertarianism is the framework for a future of freedom, growth, and progress, and it may be on the verge of a political breakout.”

Gallup: Almost No One Has Confidence in Congress

in Liberator Online by James W. Harris Comments are off

(From the Intellectual Ammunition section in Volume 19, No. 10 of the Liberator Online. Subscribe here!)

Only seven percent of Americans say they have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in Congress, according to a new Gallup poll.

About one-third of Americans report having “some” confidence, while half have “very little,” and another 7% volunteer that they have “none.”

That’s the lowest level of faith in any major American institution that Gallup has ever recorded. And Gallup has been taking such polls for over 40 years.

Further, the downturn in confidence is ongoing. Last year’s 10% was the previous record low.

For comparison, in 1973 — the first year Gallup began asking the question — fully 42% of Americans said they had confidence in Congress.

Says Gallup: “The current 7% of Americans who place confidence in Congress is the lowest of the 17 institutions Gallup measured this year, and is the lowest Gallup has ever found for any of these institutions. The dearth of public confidence in their elected leaders on Capitol Hill is yet another sign of the challenges that could face incumbents in 2014′s midterm elections — as well as more broadly a challenge to the broad underpinnings of the nation’s representative democratic system.”

These results perhaps aren’t so surprising to those who saw a Public Policy Polling poll last year (reported in the Liberator Online) that found Congress less popular than lice, root canals, cockroaches, hemorrhoids, and colonoscopies, among other plagues and pests.

Indeed, what puzzles us the most is: what’s taking the remaining 7% so long to catch on?

Word Choices: “Free Enterprise” Instead of Capitalism?

in Communicating Liberty by Sharon Harris Comments are off

Word choices are very important. Two words might mean the same thing to you. But to your audience, one word may be far more meaningful and positive than another — and may get your point across not just more favorably, but more accurately.

An example is the word “capitalism” to describe the economic system libertarians believe in.

In a past column, I described some of the positive and negative reactions some audiences have to “capitalism,” and suggested some alternatives that are better in some circumstances.

You can read that column here.

Now we have some fascinating information to add.

A January 2010 Gallup poll makes a very good case for using “free enterprise” in many situations.

This January 2010 poll asked a representative sampling of Americans whether their top-of-mind reactions to several political terms were positive or negative. Respondents were not given explanations or descriptions of the terms.

Two of those terms were “capitalism” and “free enterprise.”

Both words, of course, essentially mean the same thing in typical, common usage.

However, they drew considerably different approval ratings.

First, the word “capitalism.”

Says Gallup: “Americans are more positive than negative on ‘capitalism,’ the word typically used to describe the United States’ prevailing economic system.

“‘Capitalism’ generates positive ratings from a majority of Americans, with a third saying their reaction is negative [61% versus 33%].

Ellis Island“Republicans are significantly more positive than Democrats in their reactions to ‘capitalism,’ although majorities of both groups have favorable opinions.

“Conservatives have the highest positive image [for the word "capitalism"], followed by liberals. Moderates have somewhat lower positive ratings than either of these groups.”

Now consider reaction to the term “free enterprise.”

According to Gallup:

“Americans are almost uniformly positive in their reactions to… ‘free enterprise.’”

“Eighty-six percent of respondents rated the term ‘free enterprise’ positively, giving it substantially more positive ratings than ‘capitalism.’ Although in theory these two concepts are not precisely the same, they are in many ways functional equivalents.

“Yet, underscoring the conventional wisdom that words matter, the public clearly reacts differently to the two terms. Free enterprise as a concept rings more positively to the average American than does the term capitalism.

“Strongly positive ratings of free enterprise are generally uniform across both partisan groups [Democrats and Republicans], and across the three ideological groups [liberals, conservatives, moderates].”

Gallup sums up with a lesson effective libertarian communicators cannot ignore:

“Bottom line: As most politicians and many in business have learned, the choice of words to describe a concept or a policy can often make a substantial difference in the public’s reaction. The current research confirms that assumption.

“It is apparent that ‘free enterprise’ evokes more positive responses than ‘capitalism,’ despite the apparent similarity between the two terms.”

NOTE: The same Gallup report I link to above also offers a very useful analysis by Gallup that breaks the popularity of these phrases down further, by political ideology (conservative, liberal, and “moderate”), by party, and so on. I highly recommend this short analysis to anyone seriously interested in using these terms effectively.

Gallup Poll: Nearly 3 in 4 Americans Say “Big Government Is Our Greatest Threat”

in Liberator Online by James W. Harris Comments are off

(From the Intellectual Ammunition section in Volume 19, No. 1 of the Liberator Online. Subscribe here!)

For nearly 50 years Gallup has polled the American public on this question: “In your opinion, which of the following will be the biggest threat to the country in the future — big business, big labor, or big government?”

In mid-December Gallup announced this year’s result: Fully 72 percent of Americans now say big government is a greater threat to the U.S. than either big business or big labor.

That’s an all-time record — and by a sizeable margin.

A majority of Americans have always chosen “big government” when asked this question. But the 72% choice of big government as the biggest threat is the largest ever, far surpassing the prior record of 65% in 1999 and 2000.

(For comparison, when the poll was first taken in 1965, only 35% of Americans thought big government was the greatest threat.)

This year just 21% named big business as the greatest threat, and only 5%, a record low, said big labor.

Further, the response is consistent across party lines. Gallup notes: “Each party group currently rates big government as the greatest threat to the country, including a record-high 92% of Republicans and 71% of independents, as well as 56% of Democrats.”

Concludes Gallup: “This suggests that government policies specific to the period, such as the Affordable Care Act — perhaps coupled with recent revelations of government spying tactics by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden — may be factors.

“Americans have consistently viewed big government as a greater threat to the United States than either big business or big labor, but never more than they do now. That may be partly a reaction to an administration that favors the use of government to solve problems. Also, the revelation of widespread government monitoring of U.S. Internet activity may be a factor in raising Americans’ concern about the government. …

“In the future, Americans likely will continue to view big government as the greatest threat of the three, partly because of Republicans’ reluctance to rely on government to solve problems, and because Democrats and independents are also inclined to view big government as a greater threat than big business or big labor.”