Politics & Policy

A Return to Triangulation

Republicans need to reach out to the libertarian center.

As the Republican base fragments and Christian conservatives consider a “fast” from politics, the polling data point to a mid-term Republican thumping. Less than two weeks from now, Republicans will begin their post-mortem soul searching. And as the corpses of their House and Senate majorities grow cold, so should Karl Rove’s 2006 campaign strategy.

#ad#Since as early as 2001, Rove’s campaign strategy has been based on the faulty premise of polarization. On this view, we’re a country split down the middle: Red versus blue, liberal versus conservative. With fewer true independents and swing voters, elections are supposed to be won by turnout of the base. Guided by pollster Matthew Dowd, Rove has opted for narrow electoral victories that ignore the small group of voters in the center and concentrate instead on the base.

But new polling data demonstrate that Rove’s premise is wrong. In our analysis of data from Pew, Gallup, and American National Election Studies, we find that the terrorism issue has masked an otherwise large swing of independent voters away from the Republican party from 2000 to 2004.

These independents are largely libertarian: They are fiscally conservative and socially liberal on a series of general questions about the role of government. According to our research, about 15 percent of American voters hold libertarian views–about the same share of the electorate as the “religious right,” and a larger share than the fabled “soccer moms” and “NASCAR dads.” Our analysis shows that, in 2004, the libertarian vote for Bush dropped from 72 to 59 percent, while the libertarian vote for the Democratic nominee almost doubled. Republicans’ margin among the libertarian swing vote thus narrowed by 31 points.

Republicans have spent the past six years pushing libertarian swing voters away. President Bush’s record on federal spending, the war in Iraq, expansion of entitlements, executive authority, the federal marriage amendment, and civil liberties have held little appeal for libertarians. Moreover, by emphasizing turnout of social conservatives and promoting a “values agenda,” Republicans have further antagonized libertarians, who should be a key part of the Republican coalition.

Whereas the story of the last several campaign cycles has been that the swing voter is dead, we predict a resurrection in 2008. Campaign strategists will focus on winning libertarian swing voters by returning to a campaign strategy of the past: triangulation.

A term coined by 1996 Clinton campaign strategist Dick Morris, triangulation means raiding enemy territory, stealing issues, and wreaking havoc on the other side’s center. Triangulation advises that your partisan loyalists will vote with you anyway—perhaps begrudgingly, but they’ll come home by Election Day. (What, you think Ann Coulter will vote Democrat or Michael Moore will vote Republican? Unlikely.) So find crossover issues and appeal to independents and weak partisans. Rise above the partisan fray. In 1996, Clinton stole welfare reform and balanced budgets from Republicans and almost adopted Social Security private accounts. And it worked.

Think this is far-fetched? At the Iowa Democratic party’s largest annual fundraiser, Bill Clinton recently urged Democrats to appeal to “disaffected Republicans” and “independents.” Around the country Democrats are criticizing Republicans for their fiscal recklessness. Hillary and other Democratic presidential candidates are going to do that in 2008. And they will also appeal to libertarian moderates who think the GOP has moved too far to the right on social issues.

Democrats are preparing to triangulate. Meanwhile, Republicans are handing them libertarians on a silver platter. It’s time for Republican campaign strategists to reevaluate the costs of relying too heavily on the social-conservative base. White people who go to church frequently do not a majority make. If everything goes right, Republicans can eke out a win using Rove’s turnout strategy. But when something unexpected strikes, such as the Foley scandal, the whole party is likely to come crashing down.

Republicans should reembrace the libertarian principles of the party. They should return to Reagan’s fiscal conservatism and Goldwater’s social tolerance. Reagan won two landslides on a platform of economic reform and smaller government. George W. Bush squeaked through twice with his combination of big-government conservatism and social conservatism. In particular, he lost younger voters 54 percent to 45 percent, and younger voters are the most libertarian. They’re happy with globalization and economic freedom, but they don’t like restrictions on gay marriage and stem-cell research.

No doubt, triangulation is a delicate high-wire balancing act, requiring a high-wattage candidate like Bill Clinton. This should be the litmus test for Republican presidential candidates in 2008. How do these candidates appeal to libertarian swing voters? How strongly do they support the small-government principles of the Republican party? Otherwise, Republicans may forfeit the presidency, along with the House and Senate.

– David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute . David Kirby is executive director of America’s Future Foundation. They are co-authors of a new Cato Institute study, “The Libertarian Vote.”

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