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Sayfie Review Featured Column

by Dr. Susan MacManus
February 12, 2014

Dr. Susan A. MacManus, University of South Florida, Tampa
David J. Bonanza, Palm Bay
 
Everyone agrees that Florida is still the nation’s most competitive state and that races up and down the ballot will be fiercely contested in 2014. Enter the libertarians! In Florida, as elsewhere, they are "raring to go" to take advantage of their newfound visibility via former Congressman Ron Paul and his son, Sen. Rand Paul, and of escalating voter disaffection on a number of fronts. According to The Brookings Institution: "Libertarianism has become a major part of the political conversation in the United States." Why? Because "the tenets of libertarianism square with the attitudes of an American public dissatisfied with government performance, apprehensive about government’s intrusiveness into private life, and disillusioned with U.S. involvement overseas."
 
The potential for a protest or anti-establishment vote in Florida this fall is higher than usual. There has been a significant upswing in the number of new voters who choose to register as independents (NPAs—No Party Affiliation; minor party members) rather than as Democrats or Republicans.  Libertarian candidates are poised to benefit from this trend and guaranteed to create anxiety among Democrats and Republicans running in highly competitive races. While just 0.2% of the state’s voters are registered with the Libertarian Party of Florida, another 3.4% are affiliated with other minor parties and 22.2% with no political party (Figure 1). High profile third party candidates are likely to draw support from minor party registrants, including Libertarians, NPAs, and disillusioned and disaffected "partisan soft" voters. 

Figure 1

Source: Calculated from Florida Voter Registration File, Florida Division of Elections.
 
Eleven Libertarian Party candidates have already filed to run for a variety of positions, including Congress (Districts 11, 13, 19), governor (two libertarian candidates), attorney general, state senator (District 20), and state representative (Districts 5, 18, 28, 69). More are likely to toss their hats into races before the spring filing deadlines. A large share of these candidates have filed to run in competitive districts along the I-4 corridor (the large Tampa and Orlando media markets) which is not surprising in light of the fact that 51% of the registered Libertarian Party members live in those two markets. (Figure 2.)

Figure 2

Source: Calculated from Florida Voter Registration File, Florida Division of Elections.

Take Votes Away From Major Parties?

The rise of independents has created a bit of anxiety in both parties. Each worries that a libertarian candidate with enough visibility might end up playing a "spoiler" role.  The conventional wisdom is that libertarians pull more votes away from Republicans since libertarians tend to identify more with Republicans, especially on fiscal issues and the role of the federal government. (For example, much has been made of the recent Virginia gubernatorial election, where the Democratic candidate bested the Republican by just 3%, and a libertarian candidate garnered 6.5% of the vote).  
 
Democrats, too, are vulnerable because of the growing appeal of libertarianism among younger voters. The youth vote has leaned heavily Democratic. (Recall that younger voters were a crucial voting bloc that delivered Florida to President Obama in 2012.) But surveys are now showing that younger voters are not as strongly tied to the two major parties as in the past; many register as independents. (See Figure 3.) 

Figure 3

Source: Calculated from Florida Voter Registration File, Florida Division of Elections.

Determining Who is the "Real" Libertarian Candidate?

Already questions are arising as to who is recruiting and funding libertarian candidates. In Virginia, Democratic-leaning donors contributed mightily to the libertarian candidate for governor, counting on him to pull votes away from the Republican candidate. The libertarian’s credentials were, in turn, bashed by none other than Rand Paul who gave a high profile endorsement to the Republican.  The same scenario could arise in Florida’s gubernatorial race.

So Who are the Libertarians?  

Nationally. Last October, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), aware of the growing attention to libertarians, conducted an extensive national survey of 2,317 adult Americans (margin of error +/-2.5%) to discern who identifies with libertarianism.  The report, "In Search of Libertarians in America," classifies 7% of Americans as "consistent libertarians" and another 15% as "leaning libertarian" based on responses to a series of questions dealing with national security and international intervention, economic policy, and personal liberty.  Libertarians:
  1. Are more likely to be non-Hispanic whites (94%), male (68%), and under age 50 (62%); 25% are under age 30. 
  2. Are more likely to identify as Republicans (45%) than as Democrats (5%). BUT...
  3. Half identify as politically independent (35%) or with a third political party (15%). The key is that libertarian candidates have the potential to draw from the sizable ranks of NPA (No Party Affiliation) registrants and from the smaller minor party identifiers.
  4. Make up a smaller proportion (26%) of the Tea Party movement than do other core conservative groups. 
  5. Are more likely to say religion is not very important in their lives and to see religion as causing more problems in society than it solves.
  6. Are generally more opposed to raising the minimum wage, Obamacare, stricter environmental regulations, government monitoring of private telephone and email conversations, foreign aid, and international military intervention unless provoked. 
  7. Have more positive views of a balanced budget (cutting taxes and spending), a woman’s right to choose (abortion), physician-assisted ending-of-life for terminally ill persons, legalization of marijuana, unrestricted gun ownership, same-sex marriage, and fewer restrictions on accessing pornography on the Internet.
  8. Follow what is going on in government and politics more closely than most Americans.
In Florida. A breakdown of Libertarian Party of Florida members (a narrower classification than the libertarianism scale used in the PRRI study) shows that LPF registrants are younger and less Anglo, but similar in gender composition to libertarians nationally: 
  1. 68% of Florida’s registered Libertarians are male (same as PRRI study). (Figure 4)
  2. 72% are under 50 years of age (considerably higher than the national stats); 28% are under age 30. (Figure 3)
  3. 67% are non-Hispanic whites (lower than the national figure). (Figure 5)

Figure 4

Source: Calculated from Florida Voter Registration File, Florida Division of Elections.

Figure 5

Source: Calculated from Florida Voter Registration File, Florida Division of Elections.

Conclusion: Visibility & Impact Tied to Inclusion in Polls and Debates

Both horse-race polls and televised debates generate lots of media and voter attention.  This election cycle, we have seen libertarian candidates, particularly in large competitive media markets, being much more aggressive in pushing for their inclusion in both opinion polls and televised debates. The competitiveness of polling firms and news outlets has made them more willing to include libertarians. (Witness the visibility given the Libertarian candidate running in the special election for Congressional District 13 to fill the seat of the deceased Congressman C.W. “Bill” Young in a recently televised debate.) 
 
It is getting hard for media to justify leaving third party candidates out of debates when the ranks of the two parties are shrinking somewhat and voter turnout is declining. And why should they want to? The televised debate featuring all three candidates for CD 13 was very engaging and forced all three candidates to be clearer about their positions on key issues. It also informed viewers as to what this rising third party governance philosophy is about.  Libertarian candidate Lucas Overby, 27, made it clear his campaign was aiming at disenfranchised, alienated voters, particularly the 18-35 demographic, anticipating that his conservative views on the economy, taxing, and spending, combined with liberal views on social issues, would appeal to these voters.
 
The growing interest in and potential impact of libertarianism this election cycle simply cannot be ignored.

APPENDIX

Minor Party Makeup of Florida’s Congressional Districts: 
Potential to Swing Outcome in Competitive Races 
 
 
Source: Florida Division of Elections, registration data, book closing for 2012 presidential election.