The rise of the Tea Party movement and the Republican Party’s own post mortem analysis in the wake of Romney’s 2012 defeat has created renewed interest in understanding libertarians in America, particularly the extent to which libertarians are animating the Tea Party and how they fit into today’s conservative political coalition. Despite the existence of a third political party bearing their name, the search for libertarians in America has presented challenges to researchers and pundits for decades. Simply put, true to their independent nature, libertarians often do not appear in the places where labels or elites proclaim they should.
PRRI’s newly released 2013 American Values Survey takes up the search for libertarians in contemporary America. Our findings show consistent libertarians constitute seven percent of the American public. This distinct group of Americans is overwhelmingly white and male, skews younger than the general population, and holds generally consistent libertarian views across a range of issues such as national security and international intervention, economic policy, and on personal liberty and social issues.
One of the most striking findings about libertarians in America is that they exist largely outside the boundaries of those who claim them. Given the strength of the two-party system in America, it may come as little surprise that only 15 percent of libertarians claim membership in a third party, such as the official Libertarian Party. However, it is notable that most (61 percent) libertarians also say they do not consider themselves part of the Tea Party movement, whose leaders have claimed is “a functionally libertarian influence on the Republican Party.” Viewed another way, only about one-quarter (26 percent) of Americans who say they are a part of the Tea Party movement are libertarian.
This elusive nature of libertarians among historically conservative constituencies also comes into sharp relief by comparing the relationship between libertarians and the Tea Party to the Christian right. In 2010, PRRI uncovered the surprising overlap between the Tea Party and the Christian right, finding that approximately half (47 percent) of those who consider themselves part of the Tea Party movement also consider themselves part of the Christian right, an overlap that remains steady today at 52 percent. By contrast, less than one-quarter (22 percent) of libertarians say they consider themselves part of the Christian right.
To give just a couple of examples of how strongly these differences in composition between libertarians and the Tea Party play out, consider the following chasms between these two groups on social issues. More than 7-in-10 (71 percent) libertarians favor legalizing marijuana, and nearly 6-in-10 (57 percent) oppose making it more difficult for a woman to get an abortion. By contrast, nearly 6-in-10 (59 percent) Tea Party members oppose the legalization of marijuana, and 58 percent favor making it more difficult for a woman to obtain an abortion.
But how important are libertarians to future conservative political coalitions? Notably, libertarians make up a smaller proportion (12 percent) of the Republican base than other key conservative constituencies, such as the Tea Party (20 percent), those who identify with the Christian right (33 percent), or white evangelical Protestants (37 percent). Given their elusive nature and their smaller size, some conservative political actors might argue for writing them off.
Yet there are at least two reasons why conservative political strategists may want to embrace libertarians. First, they are active in primary elections. A majority (53 percent) of libertarian voters report they always vote in primary elections, a rate higher than voters overall and comparable to Republican voters. Second, and most important, libertarians (62 percent) are 20 percentage points more likely than both Tea Party members (42 percent) and white evangelical Protestants (42 percent) to be under the age of 50. While the inclusion of libertarians within the fold may not help Republicans solve their outreach problems with racial minorities, tapping this politically active, younger group could provide an important new infusion of energy and ideas into the party.