For the past week election analyses have been, as the tired cliché puts it, thick as autumnal leaves that strow the brooks in Vallombrosa. Yet despite all the postmortems, one burning question remains: Who spoiled the Senate race in Virginia for Robert Sarvis?
Conventional wisdom maintains that Republicans tend to steal the most votes from Libertarian Party candidates. After all, Republicans usually talk a good game about economic freedom. GOP candidates routinely praise job-creating entrepreneurs, denounce the heavy burden of government regulation, and—like libertarians—contend economic growth does more to alleviate poverty than redistributing wealth does.
Come election time, the conservative effort to siphon the libertarian vote sometimes grows explicit. When Sarvis ran for governor of Virginia last year, some voices on the right tried to argue he was an imposter. The true libertarian in the race, they said, was Republican nominee Ken Cuccinelli.
"Sarvis a libertarian?" asked National Review. "Nope. The Virginia gubernatorial candidate is a social liberal." (But a libertar—oh, never mind.) The conservative Red State blog concurred, calling Sarvis a "phony libertarian." "Ken Cuccinelli's policies show a strong libertarian streak," argued a piece in the Washington Examiner. An item in The Daily Caller agreed, accusing libertarians of "running a sacrificial lamb candidate as a spoiler" who would help elect "a real crony capitalist," Democrat Terry McAuliffe.
"It is now clear," the piece continued, that "the majority of Robert Sarvis' votes will come at the expense of Cuccinelli."
As National Review would say: nope. According to exit polls, only 3 percent of self-described conservatives voted for Sarvis. By contrast, 7 percent of self-described liberals voted for him. If Sarvis had dropped out of the race, then McAuliffe would have won even bigger. On the other hand, if conservatives, especially those professing to care about libertarian values, had voted for Sarvis instead of Cuccinelli, then McAuliffe would have lost. Way to blow the election, guys!
Funny thing about those professing to care about libertarian values. This year the Republican candidate, Ed Gillespie, came from the more establishment wing of the GOP, and could not be mistaken for a libertarian even on a moonless night. This made Sarvis the undisputed libertarian in the race. Yet those conservatives who last year urged support for Cuccinelli because he was ostensibly the real libertarian did not, this year, urge support for Sarvis. You can't help thinking their unctuous concern last year for the cause of pure libertarianism might not have been wholly sincere. (It is of course dismaying to contemplate the prospect that not everything in politics is always wholly sincere. But we must be grown-ups and admit the possibility, however remote.)
Democrats also compete for the libertarian vote. Like libertarians, they favor less military action abroad. They also talk a good game on social issues such as gay marriage, civil liberties, and the war on drugs. When he ran for president, Barack Obama was particularly emphatic on the need to restore those constitutional rights that had been eroded by the war on terror. Once in office, though, he became an enthusiastic supporter of the Patriot Act and other tools of the leviathan state.
Mark Warner seems to find this less troubling than some other Democrats do, just as he is untroubled by market interventions such as the Export-Import Bank—for which he voiced support earlier this year. And because Gillespie was less strident on social issues than Cuccinelli—but also less forceful in support of economic freedom—Warner and Gillespie took votes from Sarvis in more equal measure. According to exit polls, Sarvis got 3 percent of the vote among self-described conservatives, 3 percent of the vote among self-described moderates, and 3 percent of the vote among self-described liberals.
On the other hand, while zero percent of self-identified Democrats voted for Sarvis, 3 percent of self-identified Republicans did. This has led to some of the same recrimination on the right as last year. While conceding Sarvis is "a serious, well-qualified guy," for instance, Power Line—a prominent conservative blog—spoke for many when it accused him of becoming "a professional spoiler."
But a spoiler of what? A spoiler of GOP hopes, is the implication. The response to that is twofold. First, that premise is often wrong. And second: Even when it is right, so what?
The reason libertarians don't vote for candidates from the two major parties is not because they suffer from a false consciousness that leads them to misapprehend their own political preferences. The reason they don't vote for Republicans or Democrats is because—brace yourself now—they don't want either Republicans or Democrats to win.
As far as libertarians are concerned, the 2 percent of Americans who vote libertarian don't spoil an election. Rather, the 98 percent of Americans who don't vote libertarian are the ones who spoil it for everyone else.