Survey: Libertarian numbers are small but their social, political clout is growing

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"You can love your country without having to love your government", libertarian/anarchist/activist graffito in Bolinas, California.

Photo courtesy philosophygeek via Wikimedia Commons

"You can love your country without having to love your government", libertarian/anarchist/activist graffito in Bolinas, California.

WASHINGTON (RNS) A new statistical portrait of libertarians examines their political and cultural views just as a Libertarian Party candidate could make a difference in the upcoming Virginia governor’s race.

The Public Religion Research Institute’s annual American Values Survey, released Tuesday (Oct. 29), examines libertarians to try to “pin down a group that doesn’t fit on the traditional liberal-to-conservative spectrum,” said Robert Jones, CEO of PRRI.

“We were not sure we could find a coherent group that could say they oppose making abortion more difficult and at the same time oppose raising the minimum wage.  But we did.”

Like their ideological opposites, the Tea Party, which PRRI studied in 2010, libertarians are just 7 percent of U.S. adults. An additional 15 percent of Americans lean toward libertarian views – socially liberal, economically conservative  – while 17 percent of Americans said they leaned toward the Tea Party. Most Americans (54 percent) hold a mixture of views, PRRI found.

(The survey of 2,317 U.S. adults was conducted Sept. 21 to Oct 3, before the Tea Party-endorsed government shutdown.)

"Religious Affiliation of Libertarians and Tea Party" graphic courtesy Public Religion Research Institute, 2013 American Values Survey.

“Religious Affiliation of Libertarians and Tea Party” graphic, courtesy Public Religion Research Institute, 2013 American Values Survey

PRRI found libertarians are overwhelmingly (94 percent) non-Hispanic white and mostly male (68 percent). They’re also young. The average age is 44, while the national average is 47; Tea Party folks average slightly older, at 51.

On religion, libertarians tilt to the mainline Protestants (27 percent) and the secular (27 percent say they have no religious identity). Only 11 percent are Catholic, 6 percent identified with a non-Christian faith and 4 percent named another Christian group. (The tally is less than 100 percent due to rounding.)

But libertarians are like the Tea Party adherents (chiefly white evangelicals and Catholics) in one respect: Politically, they’re beginning to punch above their weight.

“There are opportunities for libertarians to play a bigger role in primaries,” said Jones, even though only 8 percent of libertarians identify specifically with the Libertarian Party.

Such opportunities are in play now in Virginia’s gubernatorial race.

Libertarian Party candidate Robert Sarvis has little chance to win next Tuesday (Nov. 5). However,, a website published by an American libertarian group, points out that if Sarvis wins 10 percent of the general election vote, then his party will gain the right to be on state and local ballots without having to submit petition signatures. In future elections, winning just a few state senate seats could make libertarians the swing vote on major issues.

Robert Sarvis with his family photo courtesy Sarvis for Governor 2013

Robert Sarvis with his family, photo courtesy Sarvis for Governor 2013

More immediately, Sarvis could hurt the Republican candidate, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, by siphoning off young white male voters, giving an advantage to Democratic contender Terry McAuliffe.

“In any race where there’s a libertarian, the candidate that stands to lose votes is the Republican candidate. Only 5 percent of libertarians call themselves Democrats, but 45 percent call themselves Republican,” Jones said.

The survey used two methods to identify libertarians – self-identification and a spectrum of questions on economic and social issues. Although 13 percent of Americans called themselves libertarian, “we found the label is fairly loosely held,” said Jones. Only 7 percent qualified by the scale of viewpoints that PRRI developed.

Some have claimed an overlap between the Tea Party and libertarians. David Kirby, a vice president of FreedomWorks, and Emily McClintock Ekins, polling director for the Reason Foundation, wrote for the Cato Institute on the “Libertarian roots of the Tea Party.” Looking at the  2008 elections, they concluded it was libertarian anger with the GOP, and pessimism and frustration with government, that plowed the ideological ground for the Tea Party.

“We would disagree on this. We just don’t see it,” said Jones. “These are groups that overlap on some issues but are largely very dissimilar.”

"Religious Behavior and Beliefs" graphic courtesy Public Religion Research Institute, 2013 American Values Survey.

“Religious Behavior and Beliefs” graphic, courtesy Public Religion Research Institute, 2013 American Values Survey

Among other PRRI findings:

— There is a notable exception to the generally socially liberal views of libertarians. On legalizing same-sex marriage, 59 percent oppose it. This may reflect that two in three libertarians are men and 63 percent of libertarian men oppose gay marriage; libertarian women were evenly divided on the issue.

— Most libertarians (61 percent) do not consider themselves a part of the Tea Party movement and only one in four Tea Party people would call themselves libertarian.

— Only 22 percent of libertarians say they belong to the religious right or conservative Christian movement, which is “overwhelmingly made up of white evangelicals and white Catholics,” said Jones. But most Tea Party followers (52 percent) say they are part of the Christian right. 

— Asked their preferred presidential candidate for 2016, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, is the Tea Party favorite among registered voters, while libertarians lean to Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.

— While they line up with the Tea Party in opposition to government involvement in the economy, health care and environmental protections, 70 percent of libertarians “favor allowing doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to help terminally ill patients end their lives, and a nearly identical number (71 percent) favor legalizing marijuana.”

— Where Tea Party and libertarians coincide, libertarians often hold a markedly more intense position. Their opposition to the Affordable Care Act is fiercer: 96 percent of libertarians oppose it, compared with 78 percent of Tea Party followers. Similarly, 65 percent of libertarians but only 57 percent of Tea Party followers oppose raising the minimum wage.




  • gilhcan

    The billboard attached to this story is a lot of nonsense. In a presumed democracy, the people are the government. They hire the people to do government work for temporary periods of time. They get what they hire. When the majority is wise and finds that those they hire are doing a bad job, a job that is against their interests, they should certainly not rehire them the next time round. If there are options to recall them while they are in office, the people who are the real government should exercise that option.

    In no way can you love your country if you do not like and/or accept your government. In spite of the laziness and illiteracy of the electorate, in spite of them sitting back and allowing the wealthy to buy corruption in their elected officials, the people get what they choose and what they allow.

  • gilhcan

    Besides, Robert Sarvis is a fool if he thinks that libertarians share any of his real values. His mixed family is one proof against that. There is little difference between libertarians and tea partiers. The great majority of both of those groups oppose equal rights for his wife’s race and the fact that his beautiful children are of mixed race. The vast majority of Republicans, including their libertarian and tea party wings, their birthers, their otherers, are the ones who have always opposed Barack Obama simply because he is also half black.

    They have stood in the way of all Obama’s efforts for the good of all the people of this country, the people of all races, simply because he is half black. It really has nothing to do with ideology with them, it is plain racial prejudice. Their leaders like Mitch McConnell repeat it over and over–no second term, remember? Listen closely to their talk and watch their actions, that of Donald Trump, that of Ted Cruz, that of Steve King, that of Rand Paul, that of Marco Rubio. All those competitors for the next Republican crown are racial as well as economic bigots.

  • Jay

    I don’t even know where to begin how wrong this comment is. Libertarians could care less about the race of someone. That has nothing at all to do with our beliefs.
    We believe in individual liberty, political freedom and voluntary association. If it makes you happy to marry someone of a different race, then do it. Do what makes you happy.

    You list off people like Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Steve King, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio. Libertarians are not real fans of any of those people. We love Ron Paul but can’t stand his son Rand for many reasons.

    Lastly, we oppose Obama for some things but not because he is half black. That is just an idiotic statement. He has done a lot of unconstitutional things and we oppose that, but he has also done a lot of great things to help social freedoms. So you pick and choose what you like and don’t like about him, but don’t bring up race with that.

    You really need to educate yourself before you post such asinine comments, not just for others but also for yourself.

    Lastly, you can’t love your country and not like and/or accept your government? Don’t tell anyone in the middle east that.

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  • etseq

    So libertarians are privileged white males who, despite all the claims to being socially liberal and against government interference in private morality, are actually against gay marriage. This will come as no surprise to anyone who has had the misfortune of visiting the comments on! So much for ideological consistency…

  • Duane Lamers

    gilhcan, you haven’t a leg to stand on with your remarks about tea party people and libertarians. You think Obama is opposed because he is black. Well, simple answers for simple minds, I guess.
    I dare you to take up one conservative argument made regarding the Obama regime and tear it apart. I doubt you’re capable of doing so. The reason is simple: you are operating entirely on an emotional level. Marco Rubio is a bigot? Only if you put Al Sharpton in the same bag–you know, Al of the trumped up charges in the Twana Brawley case.
    So Obama is black, and many consider him not up to the job. The same has been said of a number of white presidents, too. So what?
    Economic bigots? What about the bigotry of low expectations that many have of black people, exquisitely demonstrated in the social programs in operation for over 40 years, programs that have as their result the very destruction of the black family. Do you not see this? If not, there’s no point in further discussion.

  • Larry

    “We believe in individual liberty, political freedom and voluntary association.”

    Which has zero to do with the Tea Party’s platform beyond lip service. They are libertarian only to the point where you vote for their big money interests. From there on in, they are just the extreme intersection of the religious right and rich people who don’t want to pay taxes.

    Ron Paul was the epitome of the civil service welfare queen and little else. Several decades of pulling a government paycheck with nothing to show for it. He was a big fan of attacking individual liberties by putting their enforcement to the people most likely to be the ones discriminating. [Its no wonder David Duke endorsed him for president!]

    “Lastly, we oppose Obama for some things but not because he is half black”

    The just carry confederate flags in public when they protest his actions and constantly use racial slurs when referring to him online.

  • Larry

    ” Only if you put Al Sharpton in the same bag–you know, Al of the trumped up charges in the Twana Brawley case.”

    But Al grew up a bit since then, or at least as of late. He turned out to be an ardent supporter of marriage equality. A very libertarian cause which is opposed by the TP vociferously.

  • Larry

    Yep. Libertarian if you are a corporation. Theocrat if you are an individual. Government too small to regulate industries and effectively collect taxes but large enough to fit in a womb or tell you how to form your family.

  • Gibobus

    “So Obama is black, and many consider him not up to the job.”

    But why would anyone consider him not up to the job before he has even been sworn in? The right made it their sole purpose of existence to ensure that he be a 1 term president before he even started. Every other Democratic President elect and first term president at least had a chance to get some kind of policy start before the critics kicked in. What is it, other than race, because his policies are decidedly centrist, that causes such gnashing of teeth from the right? What is it that causes conservative congresspeople to drop their own policy positions as soon as Obama says “looks like you have a good idea there, lets try it?” Much to the dismay of progressives on the left. This has happened time and time again. What else can it be?

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  • Justin

    I get your point. In a presumed democracy, people should be in control of the government, and therefore loving your country and government should be one and the same.

    But I agree you about people buying elections. A lot of us aren’t sitting back and allowing it. Because I love my country, I voted against people I thought wouldn’t do a good job and worked at a think tank I thought supported a Constitutional government.

    However, I far from love the people currently running the government. I voted against them, and can hate what they stand for and continue to love the people and places that make up my country.

  • Justin

    Holy generalizations, batman. Libertarians are much closer to 50/50 on abortion and marriage equality. Libertarians come from a lot of different worldviews and are pretty mixed on social issues. They mainly rally around opposing bad economic policies.

    Libertarians hate the current corporation situation. The government is powerful enough to hand over taxpayer money to corporations, lobbyists, and pet projects they like. It’s ridiculously unfair for small businesses. It’s crony capitalism at it’s finest.

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  • Adrian

    I’d like to respond to some of the above ignorant comments about Libertarians. I am a 37-year-old Generation X white male, not particularly wealthy, and struggling to live in the Great Recession like many people. To refute some of the stereotypes by liberals, I support gay marriage and polygamy, and I voted for Obama in 2008 because I didn’t like McCain or even Bob Barr, who the Libertarian Party wrongly considered a qualified nominee. Fortunately, the LP nominated Gary Johnson in 2012, who I voted for in that recent election. I did consider Ron Paul, but found his opposition to condoms and abortion irrational. Please don’t generalize Libertarian males.

  • I wish I could see this article because I’d like to see how they get their idea of who is “libertarian,” as this claim is entirely bogus. Libertarians were pushing for marriage equality decades ago. I call BS on the claim and would contend that it uses a faulty methodology that skews the survey toward social conservatives—who by definition, can’t be libertarian.

  • ken

    Some will wonder if this is an attempt to redefine Libertarianism?

    The d-base of official Libertarians belongs to the LIO or Libertarian International Organization, and it doesn’t share it. Unofficial ‘libertarians’ defined by the study are meaningless except as a measure of public interest.

    The LIO has about one family in every local district on Earth, so claiming Libertarians are small misses the point. No group has 8 million people so organized. They’re distributed equally across the political spectrum with emphasis on the center.

    Here is what the LIO has to say on gay marriage:

  • ken

    Wrong. See my comment below.

  • ken

    etseq, see my comment below and GOOGLE Libertarian International Organization. The average L/libertarian is an Asian woman.

  • ken

    gilhcan, wrong. Where do you get these ideas? See my comment below or GOOGLE Libertarian International Organization and start reading.