Our new research finds that 15 percent of American voters are libertarian rather than liberal or conservative. People generally say that a liberal favors government intervention in the economy and protection of civil liberties, while a conservative is opposed to both economic intervention and the expansion of civil liberties. Libertarians oppose government intrusion into both the economy and personal freedoms.
Our data show that libertarians have generally voted Republican—66 percent for Ronald Reagan in 1980, 74 percent for George H. W. Bush in 1988, and 72 percent for George W. Bush in 2000. But they are not diehard Republicans. John Anderson and Libertarian Party candidate Ed Clark got 17 percent of the libertarian vote in 1980, and Ross Perot took 33 percent of the libertarians in 1992.
But for those on the trail of the elusive swing voter, the real news is 2004. The libertarian vote for Bush dropped from 72 to 59 percent, while the libertarian vote for the Democratic nominee almost doubled. It’s not hard to imagine why. Libertarians didn’t like Bush’s record on excessive federal spending, expansion of entitlements, the federal marriage amendment, government spying, and the war in Iraq. Kerry didn’t offer libertarians much except that he was not Bush, but he still narrowed the Republican majority among libertarians from 52 points to 21 points.
Had President Bush received 72 percent of the libertarian vote, as he did in 2000, he would have had 11.4 million libertarian votes. Instead, he received only 59 percent, or 9.4 million. Had those 2 million voters not switched to Kerry, Bush’s narrow 2004 win would have been a resounding re-election.
The libertarian vote seems to be in play.