Bryan Caplan  

Is Obama Libertarians' Fault?

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My hardest-line Republican friend has been blaming libertarians for Obama's election since November, 2008.  His story in a nutshell: Faced with a choice between Obama and McCain, libertarians chose the greater evil out of spite.  All along, I've been thinking: "You've got a lot of chutzpah.  Republicans start the Iraq War, spearhead the 2008 bailouts, and you blame libertarians for your defeat?!"  If libertarians were wrong to punish Republicans for the Iraq War and the 2008 bail-outs, what would Republicans have to do before they would deserve punishment?

Given my retort, I was surprised to learn that my Republican friend's initial premise was wrong.  Despite their prominence, "libertarians for Obama" were actually a decided minority among libertarian-leaning voters.  In their excellent piece on "The Libertarian Vote in the Age of Obama," David Kirby and David Boaz explain that libertarians did move away from Republicans from in 2004:
The election of 2004 saw a dramatic swing away from the Republicans, with libertarian support for Bush dropping from 72 to 59 percent, while support for the Democratic nominee almost doubled to 38 percent.  The Republican margin among libertarians dropped from 52 to 21 points. A look at Bush's record on war, spending, entitlements, and social issues easily explains this shifting alliance--though Sen. John F. Kerry offered little for libertarians other than "not Bush."
In 2008, however, this trend sharply reversed:
According to the 2008 ANES Panel study, 71 percent of libertarians voted for John McCain. Only 27 percent cast their vote for Barack Obama. In other words, the 2008 election showed a return to a strongly pro-Republican--or anti-Democratic--libertarian vote.
Kirby and Boaz's Table 3 puts things in longer-run perspective:

libvote.jpg
Overall, my Republican friend's scapegoating of libertarians is even more outrageous than it looks on the surface.  In 2008, libertarians had plenty of reasons to punish the Republicans.  But by and large, libertarian voters held their noses and voted for the Republicans anyway.


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COMMENTS (19 to date)
Don Lloyd writes:

Bryan,

"According to the 2008 ANES Panel study, 71 percent of libertarians voted for John McCain. Only 27 percent cast their vote for Barack Obama. In other words, the 2008 election showed a return to a strongly pro-Republican--or anti-Democratic--libertarian vote."

This might be true, but seems highly unlikely. More believable would be that 71 per cent of libertarians WHO VOTED AT ALL AND FOR ONE OF THE TWO MAJOR CANDIDATES voted for John McCain.

Regards, Don


Franklin Harris writes:

"But by and large, libertarian voters held their noses and voted for the Republicans anyway."

Which begs your question: What would the Republicans have to do before they would deserve punishment?

Ed writes:

I am iffy on these studies because I usually call myself a libertarian, but I'm part conservative, mainly on my moderate-conservative stances on foreign policy. I usually vote for Republicans, but sometimes a token libertarian if I like them and I know the Republican will win (Yes Caplan, I read your great book, I know my vote doesn't count, but it is fun anyway). I guess I'd be considered a libertarian in those results, but I am not sure. The results could give too big a definition of a libertarian including libertarian Republicans like Goldwater who support less government, but not nearly as little as Milton Friedman or certainly David Friedman.

Robbie writes:

I've not yet read through the Kirby and Boaz peice but how do they categorize people libertarian?

The very high third party votes in '92 and '96 seem to suggest many libertarians voted for Ross Perot, surely very few people who fall under the common understanding of libertarian would support such a candidate?

nazgulnarsil writes:

we're only considering candidate preference among libertarians stupid enough to vote. this skews the result.

mulp writes:

Well, it isn't entirely the libertarians, but conservatives have moved the Republican party so far right that the Democrats were able to nominate and elect president a moderate to conservative Republican.

To argue that Obama is a "leftist" is absurd if one looks at the history of US politics.

On the issue of the "leftist" stimulus bill, that was was largely a tax cut that was larger than the tax cuts of Reagan in 1981 and Bush in 2001 and 2008.

On the health reform law, that is to the right of what Nixon proposed, and is otherwise national Romneycare. And Romneycare is patterned after the health reform the Swiss passed when the Republicans were proposing something close to Romneycare as an alternative to the Clinton proposal, and not the single payer system implemented at the same time in Taiwan. Are Romney, the Swiss, and Taiwan the bastions of socialism?

On war, Obama did exactly what he said and stepped up the commitment to Afghanistan which forces going with the Bush draw down plan in Iraq, so he is like Nixon.

On nukes, Obama has continued the Reagan disarmament policy. (If you think star wars has a snow balls chance in hell of working, well you must be a big government fan because the investment would need to be larger than the cold war investment in science and technology).

Republicans were the ones to put a leash on big business and the banks before WWI. It was only with the rise of Stalin that Republicans began moving away from the people.

Obama is to the right of all elected Republicans because all the moderate Republicans have been purged from the party.

Rebecca Burlingame writes:

Guilty as charged. But I voted for Ron Paul first.

ziel writes:

Democrats were able to nominate and elect president a moderate to conservative Republican. [Followed by list of Obama's presumably moderate policies.]

Samuel Alito vs. Sonia Sotomayor. Important difference.

If you think star wars has a snow balls chance in hell of working, well you must be a big government fan because the investment would need to be larger than the cold war investment in science and technology

A preposterous statement.

Eric Dondero writes:

Actually, both of you all are wrong.

Libertarian Presidential candidate Bob Barr received 525,000 votes in 2008, the 2nd highest LP total ever.

His vote would have been higher, if not for the selection of libertarian-leaning Sarah Palin for VP for McCain. All the way up til that moment of her selection, Barr had been polling 5 to 6% in Rasmussen, as high as 11% in New Hampshire and 10% in Nevada.

If Palin had not been selected it's safe to say that the Republican ticket would have been a disaster in 2008, as libertarian-minded voters would have voted for Bob Barr en masse.

John Thacker writes:

"Obama is to the right of all elected Republicans because all the moderate Republicans have been purged from the party."

On the other hand, he also must be to the left of all elected Democrats because all the moderate Democrats have been purged from the party, as Joe Lieberman has taught us.

Lord writes:

Your friend is right but for the wrong reasons. It was their support and election of Bush that elected Obama.

William Barghest writes:

Which party controls Congress may explain the numbers here. It was safe for libertarians to punish Bush for Iraq, etc. in 2004 because Congress was controlled by Republicans, making it difficult for Kerry to do anything. This was not the case in 2008, where a vote for Obama was a vote for his agenda. (Yes I know this type of reasoning assumes that your vote might influence the election which it cannot)

Tom writes:

"Your friend is right but for the wrong reasons. It was their support and election of Bush that elected Obama. "

Which in turn is going to lead the most conservative Congress in the last 100 years.


mulp, you must still be on the counter factual post, because I don't know what the hell you're writing about.

[Comment edited for implicit name-calling.--Econlib Ed.]

eccdogg writes:

Could strategic voting help explain the change from 2004 to 2008.

Ultimately I voted for Barr, (Mainly to help the libertarian party in NC which has very high thresholds for candidates to be automatically included on the ballot) but I strongly considered voting for McCain even though I thought he was the worst candidate on the merits.

The reason was I knew with almost certainty that we would have a democratic congress so an Obama presidency would provide unchecked power for things like the healthcare bill.

My preference order was the following

1)Obama + Republican Congress
2)McCain + Democratic Congress
3)Obama + Democratic Congress
4)McCain + Republican Congress

But options 1 and 4 were very unlikely so I strongly considered 2.

Maybe many other libertarians did likewise

Koz writes:

http://reason.com/archives/2008/10/29/whos-getting-your-vote/print

This may just be Pauline Kael syndrome, but the results of your survey are substantially out of line with what libertarians have been publicly saying for a long time. To that end, I have more sympathy with your Republican friend.

Lord writes:

Then you should be celebrating Tom, just don't do so prematurely.

Mike writes:

You write: All along, I've been thinking: "You've got a lot of chutzpah. Republicans start the Iraq War, spearhead the 2008 bailouts, and you blame libertarians for your defeat?!" If libertarians were wrong to punish Republicans for the Iraq War and the 2008 bail-outs, what would Republicans have to do before they would deserve punishment?

This seems mistaken. Sure the Republicans deserved punishment, but that desert is outweigh if the Democrats would be worse at governing.

MernaMoose writes:

mulp,

I'm left with the distinct impression that you're talking about some alternate universe.


In any case this whole discussion borders on meaningless for two reasons:

1) "Libertarian" consists (unfortunately)of both classical liberals and anarchists, and I don't believe for a moment that these two factions vote the same way on net average.

2) "Libertarian" makes up such a small fraction of the population that we're irrelevant, even counting both fractions.

Though I do agree with Bryan, by and large libertarians are more prone to hold their noses and vote R than D. In spite of what certain libertarian pundits may advocate to the contrary.


As I've said before, the focus of libertarians should be on "what does it take to become a real main-stream force". But no leader or intelligentsia capable of taking us there has ever arisen.

Gut feeling on where the roots of the problem are:

1) The people we most need to have involved in politics, are way too busy making a living to dedicate the time and effort that would be required.

2) Anyone with an ounce of rationality probably has no desire to get anywhere near Washington DC.

3) Existing government agencies are at this point a power unto themselves and it would take something on the order of a Mongol invasion, or utter and complete bankruptcy of the Fed, to dislodge them.

There's probably other major obstacles that I haven't thought of just yet.

Mark writes:

Personally, I consider myself libertarian. My apprehension with Bush II was the religious right and anti-terror patriotic rhetoric.

Considering what a libertarian would like to see from a politician or a political party, Republicans seem to offer more economic freedom from government's interference, while Democrats offer more social and personal freedom from government's interference. I'm making generalizations about the parties for sure, but these are reasonably good generalizations. Republicans want government to intrude on our personal lives while Democrats want government to intrude on our economic lives.

I dislike both government interference socially and economically, but in 2004, I feared religious as well as patriotic influences on freedoms more so than I feared any modest changes to economic freedoms that Democrats seemed likely to make.

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