Sabato's Crystal Ball

False Hope: Why Libertarians Won’t Help Republicans Win the Youth Vote

Alan I. Abramowitz, Senior Columnist, Sabato's Crystal Ball August 28th, 2014

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The Republican Party has a major problem with young voters. According to national exit polls, the GOP has lost the under-30 vote by a wide margin in every election since 2004. In 2012, Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney by a whopping 23 percentage points among 18-29 year olds. Romney’s deficit among young voters was responsible for his entire margin of defeat in the national popular vote. Based on the exit poll results, Romney actually won more votes than Obama among voters who were 30 years of age and older.

Based on demographic trends and data from recent surveys, the GOP’s youth problem is not likely to improve any time soon. The age cohorts that will be entering the electorate over the next two decades include even larger proportions of nonwhites than today’s 18-29 year-old voters. And despite the claim by one scholar that a majority of 18-20 year olds voted for Mitt Romney in 2012, data from the Gallup tracking poll based on thousands of interviews with 18-20 year olds during 2013-14 showed no evidence of Republican gains in this age group.

The GOP’s youth problem has led to considerable speculation by pundits and Republican strategists about what the party should do to increase its appeal to younger voters in the future. One idea that has attracted some support both inside and outside of the party is that Republicans could win over younger voters by nominating candidates who espouse libertarian policies on issues ranging from same-sex marriage and national security to government regulation and health care.

The claim that candidates with libertarian views could help Republicans appeal to younger voters was recently advanced in a lengthy article by Robert Draper in the New York Times Magazine. Draper’s argument is based on the assumption that many younger Americans are attracted to the libertarian philosophy of maximum individual freedom and minimal government. But how realistic is this assumption?

An analysis of data from the 2012 American National Election Study raises serious doubts about the claim that a candidate with libertarian views would have strong appeal to younger voters. In fact, the data indicate that younger voters tend to hold relatively liberal views on social welfare as well as cultural issues. Only a small minority of voters under the age of 30 can be classified as libertarians. Moreover, both younger and older Americans who hold libertarian views already vote overwhelmingly for Republican candidates, so nominating a candidate with a libertarian philosophy would be unlikely to gain many votes for the GOP.

Findings

Table 1 compares the liberalism of younger and older voters in 2012 in two policy domains — one cultural and one economic. The cultural liberalism scale measures support for gay rights while the economic liberalism scale measures support for social welfare programs. The gay rights scale is based on two questions — one on same-sex marriage and one on adoptions by same-sex couples. The social welfare scale is based on five questions on issues ranging from the Affordable Care Act to government responsibility for jobs and living standards to government aid to African Americans.

Table 1: Opinions on gay rights and social welfare issues by age

Source: 2012 American National Election Study

The results displayed in Table 1 show that younger voters were considerably more liberal than older voters on both types of issues. The difference on gay rights was somewhat larger than the difference on social welfare issues, but there is no evidence here that younger Americans find the libertarian philosophy of minimal government especially attractive when it comes to the role of government in society. Moreover, these results are consistent with the responses of younger voters to questions asking about their general orientation toward the role and size of government. For example, when asked whether they favored a larger or a smaller government role in dealing with societal problems, voters under the age of 30 favored a larger role by a margin of 55% to 45%. In contrast, voters age 30 and older favored a smaller role by a margin of 59% to 41%.

Table 2: Political orientation by age

Source: 2012 American National Election Study

Based on their views on gay rights and social welfare issues, we can classify voters as consistent liberals (liberal on both scales), moderate liberals (moderate on social welfare, liberal on gay rights), consistent conservatives (conservative on both scales), moderate conservatives (moderate on social welfare, conservative on gay rights), libertarians (conservative on social welfare, liberal on gay rights) or populists (liberal on social welfare, conservative on gay rights). Table 2 compares the proportions of younger and older voters who fell into each of these categories in 2012.

There was a fairly strong positive correlation between liberalism on social welfare issues and liberalism on gay rights among both younger and older voters. The correlation between these two scales was around 0.3 in both groups. As a result, almost half of voters in both age groups were classified as either consistent liberals or consistent conservatives whereas only about one in five voters in both groups were classified as either libertarians or populists. Based on this classification, there were more libertarians (about 15% of voters) than populists (about 7% of voters) but libertarians were no more prevalent among younger voters than among older voters. However, compared with older voters, younger voters were considerably more likely to be classified as consistent or moderate liberals and considerably less likely to be classified as consistent or moderate conservatives.

Table 3: Vote for Romney in 2012 by age and political orientation

Source: 2012 American National Election Study

Our results thus far indicate that younger voters would not be especially attracted to a candidate holding libertarian views. Moreover, the results displayed in Table 3 show that the vast majority of young libertarians in 2012 were already voting for Republican candidates: 76% of younger libertarians, along with 82% of older libertarians, reported voting for Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election. In addition, young libertarians overwhelmingly identified with the Republican Party and favored Republican House and Senate candidates by wide margins. Among libertarians under the age of 30, those who identified with or leaned toward the Republican Party outnumbered those who identified with or leaned toward the Democratic Party by 74% to 17%. Of these young libertarians, 75% reported voting for a Republican House candidate in 2012 and 81% reported voting for a Republican Senate candidate.

Conclusions

Based on these results, nominating libertarian candidates would be unlikely to improve the Republican Party’s performance among younger voters because these voters are much more likely to be liberals than libertarians and because the vast majority of those who do hold libertarian views already identify with the Republican Party and vote for Republican candidates. In order to increase their party’s appeal to younger Americans, Republicans would need to nominate candidates who are considerably more liberal on both economic and cultural issues than the party’s recent presidential nominees or the vast majority of its current congressional candidates.

One of the most important reasons why the libertarian philosophy holds little appeal for most younger voters is that a disproportionate share of voters under the age of 30 are nonwhite. According to the 2012 ANES, nonwhites made up 40% of voters under the age of 30 compared with 25% of voters age 30 and older. Moreover, the nonwhite share of younger voters is almost certain to increase over the next several election cycles based on the racial composition of the age cohorts that will be entering the electorate in the future.

The libertarian philosophy of limited government holds very little appeal to nonwhite voters in general, and it holds even less appeal to younger nonwhite voters. Only 4% of nonwhite voters under the age of 30 were classified as libertarians compared with 23% of white voters under the age of 30. In contrast, 69% of younger nonwhite voters were classified as consistent or moderate liberals compared with 49% of younger white voters. These results suggest that the limited appeal of libertarian ideas to younger voters is likely to diminish further over time as the nonwhite share of this age group continues to grow.

Alan I. Abramowitz is the Alben W. Barkley Professor of Political Science at Emory University and a senior columnist for the Crystal Ball. His most recent book is The Polarized Public: Why American Government Is So Dysfunctional. Follow Alan on Twitter @AlanIAbramowitz.