Sarvis Non-Role in McAuliffe's Victory Over Cuccinelli Prompts Strange Misreadings of Libertarianism, Reason


Tightly contested major-party political races are not exactly factories for lucid, dispassionate political analysis. Particularly when, as in Virginia's gubernatorial race last week, a third party candidate draws more votes than the margin of victory between the two leading candidates.

Over at Forbes.com, Carrie Sheffield asks "Who Will Be the Next Libertarian Spoiler?" Her piece starts as follows: 

Don't get me wrong, I enjoy Cato Unbound as much as the next supply-sider. But I don't understand why it's not uncommon that libertarian candidates play spoiler to Republican candidates. Too often this throws the race to a Democrat who's much farther removed from the libertarian's ideology than the GOP candidate.

Over at Reason, Matt Welch identified seven congressional cases last year where the libertarian candidate garnered more support than the margin between a victorious Democrat and vanquished Republican. The most recent glaring case in point is the Virginia gubernatorial race, where governor-elect Terry McAuliffe (47.6 percent of the vote) could have lost to Republican Ken Cuccinelli (45.4 percent of the vote) were it not for Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis, who won 6.6 percent of the vote.

Here's an important point for those trying to blame Sarvis voters for throwing the election to Terry McAuliffe: Sarvis voters didn't throw the election to Terry McAuliffe. No really, they didn't. According to CNN's exit polling unit, "if Sarvis had not been in the race, exit polls indicate McAuliffe would have beaten Cuccinelli by 7 points (50%-43%)." According to ABC News' analysis, "Libertarian Robert Sarvis, may have made it closer for McAuliffe than it would have been otherwise. Had he not been on the ballot, a third of his voters said they'd have supported McAuliffe – slightly more than twice as many as said they'd have gone for Cuccinelli." In other words, the whole hook for the column is bogus.

Sheffield deploys as supporting evidence for her thesis that "too often" the Libertarian "throws the race to a Democrat" this Nov. 12, 2012 blog post of mine pointing out seven federal races where the margin of victory was lower than what the LP candidate received. As telegraphed by the use of the scare-quote "'Spoiler'" in my headline, having third-party candidates beat the margin of victory does NOT mean that they threw the election to the winner. To arrive at that conclusion you need to not only assume that votes by definition belong to one of two major parties (an assumption that I will go along with for the moment), but also to have some idea of who they would have voted for (if anyone) had the third-party candidate not been on the ballot.

To that effect, this follow-up Nov. 16, 2012 post of mine applied a formula derived from a Reason-Rupe pre-election poll of Gary Johnson supporters (who leaned 53% Republican, 38% Democrat, 10% independent) onto eight congressional races that had been flagged as possible LP spoilers in a Daily Kos chart. My conclusion?

[A]s best as I can calculate–there are no spoilers in the chart above. Obviously, there are reasons to believe that the 53-38-10 formula is flawed, but (unlike the implied 100-0-0 number people sometimes use to divvy up third-party votes), at least it's based on real polling data.

With a year's hindsight, I would amend that to say you can begin to make a convincing LP-spoiler claim in exactly one 2012 congressional race: Democrat John Tierney's 48.2%-47.2% win over Republican Rich Tisei in a Massachusetts 6th district race where Libertarian Daniel Fishman received 4.6% of the vote. So there you have it: 435 members of Congress, 33 senators, 13 governors, and one president were elected in November 2012; of those 482 electoral outcomes only one (to the best of my knowledge) can be plausibly argued to have been affected by an LP candidate. And yet, in the face of a Virginia race that does not add to that tally, we're worried about the next Libertarian spoiler?

Well, at least Sheffield didn't use the Sarvis case as occasion for a strange I-break-with-thee rant about libertarians and the allegedly solutions-averse, possibly hooker-banging rabble at Reason magazine. Derek Hunter, come on down!

Two days after the Virginia election, in a Townhall column illustrated by a victorious Terry McAuliffe, Derek Hunter laid out "The Problem With Libertarians." Starts like this:

There was a time I called myself a Libertarian. And there was a time I was a Libertarian. I just wanted to get government to leave me alone, to leave people alone and to go all crazy and limit itself to doing only that which is spelled out clearly in the Constitution. That was what a Libertarian was. But it's not anymore.

So how did libertarianism leave Derek Hunter?

They went from the movement for individual responsibility, small government and free markets to a gaggle of misfits who want pot and prostitution legalized and a total non-interventionist foreign policy.

That pretty much sums it up.

Honestly, what does being a Libertarian mean beyond legalizing drugs, banging hookers and sitting by while the rest of the world blows itself up?

This about captures the quality of Hunter's analysis. At a time when libertarians (who Hunter is using the capital-L descriptor to discuss here) represent a newly identified and growing bloc of American voters, are affecting modern life in all kinds of beneficial ways outside the scrum of electoral politics, and are making recently unprecedented inroads in the Republican Party in a way that has had tangible effects on federal spending, civil-liberties politics, and reckless foreign intervention, now we're talking about "a gaggle of misfits" who just want to bang hookers?

Hunter then manages to mis-portray Reason even while praising (thanks!) our work:

The great Reason magazine is a wonderful publication filled with great articles, solid journalism you won't find elsewhere…and a voice that does little more than complain.

Reason is great at highlighting abuses by every level of government, stories ignored by other media outlets. But you won't find much in the way of philosophy or solutions. (There's some, it just doesn't seem to be a focus.) They preach to the choir, and it ends there.

True story: In the same week Hunter was writing this complaint, I was busy proofreading for our next print issue a feature about using crowdsourcing to fix…potholes.

As many of our libertarian-movement critics will be first to tell you, Reason is forever "compromising" pure philosophical principles by attempting to apply libertarian insights onto the very non-libertarian real policy world we inhabit. So we publish a "19 Percent Solution" about affixing federal spending to a percentage of GDP rather than merely complain that most federal government activity is morally and constitutionally illegitimate (the upshot is that our solutions end up sounding like those being offered by a new generation of libertarian-leaning Republicans). The same impulse is behind our calls to replace entitlements with a real safety net (rather than ripping up both), slowly unwind Fannie and Freddie (rather than ending them overnight), redirect federal transportation spending (rather than just getting rid of it), and on and on.

This approach is baked right into Reason's DNA. Robert Poole wrote the first real journalistic case for deregulating airlines in the September 1969 issue of Reason, and is as responsible for the real-world solutions of airline deregulation and privatization as anyone alive. Poole, who is still Director of Transportation Policy for the Reason Foundation (the public-policy work of which embodies the very definition of pragmatically applying libertarian insights onto the fallen world of governance), described in our 2008 oral history of Reason how the magazine made the deliberate choice early on to not preach to the choir, but rather engage in the world outside our comfort zone:

We said, "Let's leave movement stuff to movement zines and go back to our original vision and make reason a competitor to National Review and The Nation and engage in the battle of ideas with the whole spectrum of thinking people." We've tried to stick with that ever since, with different ways to carry that idea out.

Hunter never mentions what kind of "solutions" he has in mind, but since he spends five paragraphs complaining about the anti-John McCain sentiment he witnessed at a 2008 D.C. election night happy hour co-sponsored by Reason and America's Future Foundation (I wasn't there, FWIW), it's probably safe to infer that cheering for the electoral success of Republicans, no matter how big-government they might be, is a solution in and of itself:

Libertarians have devolved from the pro-liberty wing of the right side of the ledger to the annoying kid who, when he doesn't get 100 percent of what he wants, takes his ball and goes home. The team he agrees with more than half the time loses to the team he barely agrees with at all, and he cheers while marinating in his smugness.

This revealing paragraph makes broader assumptions that don't reflect the lived-in reality of voter behavior. For example, according to this 2010 analysis from David Boaz and David Kirby, libertarian voters in 2008 backed McCain over Obama by 71% to 27%, a sharp increase over their 21-point preference for George W. Bush in 2004. A Reason-Rupe poll just prior to the 2012 election showed even bigger libertarian support for Mitt Romney, 77% to 20%.

And yet Hunter is exercised about libertarians' alleged "'my way or the highway' approach to electoral politics," and "100 percent-or-nothing purity tests" (an odd complaint in a piece—and paragraph!—that spends time fretting that people like Bill Maher are diluting the libertarian brand, and so need to be more loudly repudiated by libertarian organizations).

The real category error here is assuming that the fortunes of libertarianism rise and fall on the narrow issue of the GOP winning elections. Republicans pretty much ran Washington, D.C. from 2001-2006, and accomplished roughly nothing of a libertarian nature (not surprising, since they campaigned and conceived of themselves on explicitly anti-libertarian grounds).

As Nick Gillespie and I argue in The Declaration of Independents, there is ample reason to believe that Republicans became more interested in such long-neglected issues as fiscal restraint precisely when they realized that they could no longer count on automatic votes from people who actually believed in limiting government. The more the "Liberty Movement" gains traction within the GOP, the more interesting the GOP becomes. And the more any politician embraces any libertarian solution, the more that libertarian-minded folk will put aside differences on other issues and try to get positive stuff done, piece by piece. And yes, that damn well includes attempting to wipe away each and every vestige of the Drug War, one of the single worst government policies in the history of the United States.

Meanwhile, most libertarian victories—like most other things that are worth celebrating in life—happen far, far away from Capitol Hill. For copious examples of such, I recommend picking up Reason's latest issue, which has a package of stories under the rubric of "Technology vs. The State."

Mediate's Andrew Kirell responded to Hunter's piece here; Hunter fired back here.