The midterm elections, we’re told, will be determined by gas prices, body bags, and the Democratic and Republican turnout machines. And that’s it. Which party controls Congress will be decided by a handful of competitive districts, hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign ads, and fewer than a million swing votes.
What we rarely hear about is how important libertarian-minded voters will be to the election’s outcome.
According to a Pew Research Center survey taken after the close 2004 election, libertarians have played a key role in keeping the GOP in power. The Pew definition of “libertarian” won’t necessarily match that of most reason readers: By their reckoning, the typical libertarian supports private Social Security accounts, gay marriage, and tax cuts, but also a higher minimum wage. But if it isn’t a perfect metric, it does describe the kind of socially liberal, fiscally conservative voters who tend to be attracted to libertarian ideas.
Pew’s libertarians amount to 9 percent of the electorate. In 2004, they strongly favored George W. Bush over John Kerry, 59 to 41 percent. If just 127,014 libertarian voters in Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico had moved into the Kerry column, the Massachusetts senator would have landed in the White House. (To put that in perspective, consider that the Libertarian Party candidate for president, Michael Badnarik, pulled 397,265 votes nationwide, including 13,222 in those three states.) Analyzing the libertarian sympathies of the West early this year, New York Times columnist John Tierney wrote that supporters of small government conservatives “would have felt at home in the old fusionist G.O.P. But now they’re up for grabs, just like the party’s principles.”
If the Dems can’t draw the libertarian vote, the Republicans are still smarting over the races they’ve lost because the Libertarian Party served as a spoiler. In a widely discussed New York Times piece from 2002, National Review’s John Miller bemoaned the close defeats of Republican senatorial candidates Slade Gorton in Washington and John Thune in South Dakota, complaining that “If there had been no Libertarian Senate candidates in recent years, Republicans would not have lost control of the chamber in 2001, and a filibuster-proof, 60-seat majority would likely be within reach.”
Now more than ever, as campaign strategists target relatively small but vital blocs of voters in tight races, it’s in the interest of both major parties to court libertarians. Yet the two parties act as the political equivalents of highly dysfunctional companies like Ford and General Motors. Sputtering, rust-bucket relics of the past, they insist on following the same strategies that have brought them declining returns. Indeed, if Republicans have been worrying about a libertarian exodus in this closely contested election cycle, they’ve done a good job of hiding it. They’ve made the Iraq war, intrusive domestic surveillance, immigration restrictions, and culture-war issues such as gay marriage the thickest chapters in their 2006 election playbook. And Democrats, presented with the chance to seize a new bloc of supporters, aren’t making many overtures to swing voters beyond the storied “security moms” and fuel-conscious commuters.
Yet even as most party leaders look elsewhere for support, cutting-edge conservative and liberal thinkers are actively debating how to make libertarians a larger part of their coalitions. On the right, The Elephant in the Room author (and former Reason intern) Ryan Sager argues that libertarians need to take back the GOP. On the left, blogger Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos has urged pro-gun, pro–civil liberties “libertarian Democrats” to join the party of FDR.
Can the two big parties make a case for libertarian support? Does the Libertarian Party, or some other third party, have room to grow into something more than a spoiler or a disseminator of radical ideas? In September, Reason asked representatives from the Democrats, the Republicans, and the Libertarian Party why their candidates deserve the libertarian vote.
The former executive director of the national College Republicans and current president of Americans for Tax Reform, Grover Norquist has been a hub of the Republican Party for decades. He has famously argued that the heart of the GOP is a “Leave Us Alone Coalition” of gun owners, homeschoolers, overtaxed businessmen, and other voters fed up with government intrusion.
Reason: Why should libertarians vote for Republicans?
Grover Norquist: If you’re in Massachusetts, there’s a strong argument for casting a vote for the Libertarian candidate for Congress because your vote is not going to make a difference between the Republican and the Democrat. You might want to send a signal about the size of the libertarian-leaning vote.
But if you have a district or state that is at all competitive I think it’s a pretty easy decision. The Republicans have failed in some zones, but none of those are fatal to the ability to fight for freedom in the future. But if you get enough people locked into welfare dependence and taxes high enough, if you take away people’s guns, you can turn the country into a social democracy and an inevitable slide toward tyranny.
Reason: Do Republicans still deserve to call themselves the party of small government?
Norquist: The Republican Party votes consistently every year for tax reduction. Limiting government spending is a very long, difficult, tedious fight. But the Republicans—both in reality and in their statements—are trying to move in that direction, and the Democrats are determined to move the other way. This was Thomas Sowell’s argument for Bush in 1992: Better a third-rate fireman than a first-rate arsonist.