Catching Up With Independents

The voters who keep fleeing the two major parties are giving libertarianism a try.


It's hard to imagine a more favorable climate for an opposition party to gain voters than an election year with an unpopular White House incumbent under whose watch the economy has been and likely will continue to be awful. Yet a mere nine days before the beginning of 2012, a USA Today study found that Republican registration in the 28 states where party affiliation is recorded was down 800,000 since 2008, including 350,000 in eight swing states.

Who's gaining? Not the governing Democrats, who deservedly lost twice as much. It's the ranks of the unaffiliated that have grown by 400,000, including 325,000 in those eight swing states. Even amid the clarifying up-or-down, Team Blue or Team Red exercise of high-profile politics, Americans are increasingly choosing to jump off the political pendulum, reject tribalism, and declare themselves swing voters. And if the first week of 2012 is any guide, these are the people most likely to support practical libertarian politics.

This issue of reason went to the printer as New Hampshire primary voters were heading for the polls; by the time you read this South Carolina and maybe even Florida will be in the rearview mirror. But even after the initial Iowa caucuses, exit polls showed something extraordinary: Independents are making up for the enthusiasm gap created by the declining rolls of Republicans, and they are breaking hard for the only libertarian in the race, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). 

The Iowa Republican caucuses had virtually the same voter turnout this year (122,000) as in 2008 (119,000), leading to many headlines like "Why the GOP Still Has an Enthusiasm Problem" (as Talking Points Memo put it). If anything, the problem for Republicans is worse than those numbers suggest. 

In 2008 exit polls showed that 86 percent of Iowa caucusers self-identified as Republicans. In 2012 that share was down to 75 percent. The difference? Again, independents, whose ranks grew from 13 percent to 23 percent. And who did they favor? By more than 2 to 1, Ron Paul.

Paul received 43 percent of the independent vote, compared to 19 percent for runner-up Mitt Romney. He also led the field among those who had never previously voted in an Iowa Republican caucus (33 percent, compared to Rick Santorum's 23 percent) and dominated among voters under 30 (48 percent to Santorum's 23 percent).

Predictably, this non-Republican support for Paul has led to a lot of sneering among the declining ranks of Republican true believers. "?'Mischief' Voters Push Paul to Front of GOP Race," said the headline on a Washington Examiner piece by Byron York that went viral among the anti-Paul Republican crowd. Even though Dr. No more than doubled his 2008 take, attracting new, enthusiastic voters into a nomination process led by an unloved candidate running on electability, and even though Romney's Iowa vote total in 2012 was virtually the same as it was in 2008, the GOP establishment chose to mock Paul's crossover appeal. "Without the support of these Democrats and Independents," Leon Wolf wrote at the conservative site one week before the Iowa vote, "Paul pulls roughly the same trivial level of support he got in 2008."

What the critics didn't mention is that the same charge could have been leveled against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the last election cycle. McCain effectively sewed up the GOP nomination by winning the Florida primary on January 29, 2008, but—amazingly—in neither that election nor any of the ones that came before (including his victories in New Hampshire and South Carolina) did the Arizona veteran ever win even a plurality of votes among those who described themselves as Republicans. In his three winning states plus Michigan, McCain beat all comers among independents, moderates, liberals, those who strongly disapproved of George W. Bush, and (even more amazingly) those who considered themselves anti-war. 

These results can be partly explained by McCain's lingering attractiveness to non-Republicans, left over from his salad days as a media "maverick" from 1996 to around 2003. But the discrepancy also suggests that at a time of bleeding Republican market share, nontraditional swing voters can hold the whip hand even in closed primary elections; i.e., ones that require party membership. In this atmosphere, and against an incumbent president whose once-soaring approval rating among independents currently sits around 42 percent, one might think Republicans would welcome anyone attracting outsiders into their fold.

But this is no ordinary electoral season. The Republican Party hasn't yet figured out what it's supposed to look like in a 21st century that started off so badly under George W. Bush's big-government rule. Many defense hawks and social conservatives—two legs of Ronald Reagan's famous three-legged stool of modern Republicanism—worry that Ron Paul's version of the third leg (fiscal conservatism) is a direct threat to the ideas and government spending they hold dear. A GOP that looks like Ron Paul would go hard after military spending, overseas intervention, the surveillance state, crony capitalism, compassionate conservatism, the drug war, and countless federal programs that have for years enriched politicians, lobbyists, bankers, and industrialists.

The bad news for this legacy GOP is that voters have fresh memories of what big-government conservatism looks like, and they disdain it. The good news for those of us who share that disdain is that our numbers are growing.

After the Iowa vote (which disappointed many Paul fans who believed he might win outright), American Conservative Editor Daniel McCarthy, an occasional reason contributor, made the provocative claim that the Paul movement was producing "an architectonic shift," analogous in influence to the Barry Goldwater uprising of the 1960s and the religious right upswing in the '70s and '80s. "Those are the closest parallels to what he's achieving, and the change he's bringing about is arguably more profound," McCarthy wrote.

Paul's attraction among young voters in particular, McCarthy contended, "augurs more than just a change in the factional balance within the GOP. It's suggestive of a generational realignment in American politics. The fact that many of these young people do not consider themselves Republican is very much the point.…What it really means is that the existing ideological configuration of U.S. politics doesn't fit the rising generation. They're not Republicans, but they're voting in a Republican primary: at one time, that same description applied to Southerners, social conservatives, and Reagan Democrats, groups that were not part of the traditional GOP coalition and whose participation completely remade the party."

Remaking the Republican Party is certainly one hopeful option. "Where we are very successful," Paul said in a speech after the votes were counted in Iowa, "is re-introducing some ideas the Republicans needed for a long time, and that is the conviction that freedom is popular." 

But there is another possible outcome that is more plausible. Paul seems headed for the GOP presidential race's Final Four, and he has both the fund raising and strategy in place to campaign from coast to coast until the Republican National Convention in Tampa, making him a solid bet to finish higher. With the future of the party at stake, the GOP establishment will probably turn vicious against everything he stands for. 

"The ambition of Paul and his supporters is breathtaking," wrote former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson in The Washington Post on New Year's Day. "They wish to erase 158 years of Republican Party history in a single political season, substituting a platform that is isolationist, libertarian, conspiratorial and tinged with racism." This kind of talk could turn a whole generation of potential young Republicans into independents. From where I sit, that doesn't look like a bad result at all.

Editor in Chief Matt Welch is co-author, with Nick Gillespie, of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong with America (PublicAffairs).


NEXT: Attn: D.C.-area Reasonoids! Come See Matt Welch Debate Jonah Goldberg at AEI Wednesday Night on the Question, "Are Libertarians Part of the Conservative Movement?"

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Why Independent Voters Are Turning to Libertarianism

    For the independence?

    1. I don’t see evidence of this. People being non affiliated is the voting equivalent of a tattoo. They express their individuality by not being a member of either party, and when it comes to election time they simply get a giant ink stain vote JUST LIKE EVERYONE ELSE.

      1. Yes. People claim independence, but when they step in that booth…it’s TEAM time. Always.

        1. Hey, if you don’t vote for the winning TEAM your vote was wasted, right?

          1. We’ve already lost. We lost 100 years ago with Government education; this is just the fruit of their labor.

    2. They aren’t. Independent voters may be turning to Ron Paul, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re wedded to any particular ideology. The independent vote has also been known to support the likes of Ross Perot.

      The support is for the man, not the ideology. In other words, when Ron Paul leaves the scene, the more likely outcome is that libertarians return to .5% of the national vote, not that Gary Johnson inherits Ron Paul’s supporters.

      1. Nah, Ron Paul’s setting the stage for his son Rand. There’s a glimmer of hope yet.

      2. Not for the man, but for the opportunity presented by his campaign. The nearly right man at the right place, hopefully, at the right time.

        1. You know what they say, Sam: “The wrong man in the right place can make all the difference in the world.”

    3. looking for the bilover?—datebi*cO’m— is a site for bisexual and bicurious singles and friends.Here you can find hundreds of thousands of open-minded singles & couples looking to explore their bisexuality.sign up for free.

  2. I don’t care if you troglodytes keep the warfare half of the equation as long as we get our welfare (and health care of course) half. Our side is bigger.

  3. People support the idea of Libertarianism, unfortunately it often breaks down when you get into specifics. People just can’t stand not being able to tell other people how to live their lives. They have no issue holding two irreconcilable viewpoints at the same time.

    1. Liberty for me, but not for thee.

    2. They have no issue holding two irreconcilable viewpoints at the same time.

      I dont see the problem with this.

    3. Seriously. I just suffered an acute case of depression reading the news today. People don’t question simple shit like “Guarantee food for everybody!!!11one” etc.

      I’m now seriously contemplating suicide.

      1. More for everybody else.

  4. there’s more indies in my congressional district than gop & dems combined.

    1. No, that’s “undies”, and they need to be washed, Urine.

  5. Shit like this might turn people to libertarianism.


    1. If you haven’t done anything wrong what do you have to hide?

      1. My assets are not the government’s business. And retailers aren’t the police.

        I’ll have to have my dog start making the transactions. He’s probably a police target anyway.

  6. Still feel like independent voters are turning libertarian after Paul got third in Nevada and fourth in Florida? I love Paul personally but I’m worried his appeal is starting to peter out among GOP primary voters.

    1. He didnt attempt Florida, so that isnt a surprise. Nevada was disappointing.

      We will see how the Minnesota and Colorado caucuses go today.

      Today? Is that right?

      1. I think skipping Florida was a huge mistake. He couldn’t win, but maybe he could’ve placed.

        1. The problem is that he is looking at like I do…delegates are all that matter.

          But, lots of voters seem to care about straw poll placing.

          1. Exactly. In a more perfect America, he’d be right. But you can’t vanish the way he did. South Carolina was an unavoidable blow, but he was still part of the discussion rolling into Florida. If he’d campaigned to win, he’d have stayed relevant and might actually carry the western states he was viewed as having a chance in. Gingrich and Santorum would both be totally done if Paul had come in second in Florida, even though that wouldn’t have given him one more delegate.

            Now, his chances of winning any states are looking much weaker. If he could’ve been the sole Anti-Romney, it would be a different story.

            1. In a more perfect America, he’d be right.

              He is right, its the voters that are wrong.

              1. Yeah, you keep on keepin’ on with that and see how far it gets you.

            2. Gingrich and Santorum would both be totally done if Paul had come in second in Florida
              disagree and here’s why: Newt and Ricky will be perpetually supported by talk radio and the Catholic Channel, both of which cannot stand Romney and routinely belittle Paul.

              They have been chasing a “true conservative” champion since day one. They glommed on to every Perry, Bachmann, et al as if each were Reagan/Goldwater/Thatcher rolled into one. They consistently mistake the reality of the US being a center right nation for their fantasy of it being far right.

              1. Maybe not literally done, but effectively done.

              2. and had Paul come in first everywhere Romney would be done too.

                I don’t get this line of thinking.

            3. If he could’ve been the sole Anti-Romney

              Isn’t that why Gingrich is running?

  7. “a platform that is isolationist, libertarian, conspiratorial and tinged with racism.”

    One of those things doesn’t belong, but most people probably consider all four as synonyms for “bad”.

    1. Well, two of them don’t belong, but one of those two is just a misrepresentation.

  8. Apparently Newt’s poop was bigger than Rick’s.

    1. I would guess this would be the case even without the photo.

    2. Smells just like Santorum though

  9. This is great! Maybe the Libertarian candidate gets 2% of the vote this time!

  10. Why Independent Voters Are Turning to Libertarianism

    Maybe they have finally realized we are rapidly running out of rope (and money).

  11. skipping Florida was a huge mistake.

    Proof positive libertarians HATEZ TEH OLDSTURDZ!

    It was exactly the same as putting them all on a giant ice floe and sailing them off to the Great Seal Hunt Casino in the Sky.

    1. Since I hate Medicare/SS, apparently I do hate old people. Or so I’ve been told.

      1. I think old people hate us, they keep stealing money from us.

  12. Why Independent Voters Are Turning to Libertarianism

    [citation needed]


    Why AreIndependent Voters Are Turning to Libertarianism? No Evidence of This To Date.

  13. Alt Text suggestion:

    “Look at US. We’re the reason why! Given the 2 of us, why would you ever vote for a republican?! Fucking retards, all of you.”

  14. Maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised and Ron Paul will experience a surge in the primary. Maybe if he doesn’t win the people will revolt.

    Maybe pigs will fly someday too.

    1. I’m going to get a flying pig grave marker for my dad’s grave. True story.

  15. If only there was some kind of political party people could join to show that they were turning to Libertarianism…

    1. Yes, if only there was a sane, competent, effective party they could join. Alas.

      1. Abandoning the asylum to the inmates is not a good long-term solution.

        1. When the inmates manage to fool the asylum inspectors into thinking that legitimate psychological professionals are still in charge, you know it’s gotten pretty bad.

  16. Ron Paul is a Statesman. The rest are politicians. A Statesman cares about the next generation. A Politician only cares about himself. BIG difference!

  17. reject tribalism, and declare themselves swing voters. And if the firs

  18. went to the printer as New Hampshire primary voters were heading for the polls; by the time you read this South Carolina and

  19. Hello! I just want to offer you a huge thumbs up for the excellent info you have right here on this post. I’ll be returning to your blog for more soon.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.