The Campaign Spot

The GOP’s Limited Ability to Win Over Those Who Vote Libertarian

A Virginia Democrat laughs on the Washington Post op-ed page:

Robert Sarvis received 2.4 percent of the vote; without him (or another Libertarian of similar stature) on the ballot, most of those votes would likely have gone to Republican nominee Ed Gillespie. And Mr. Gillespie, not Democratic incumbent Mark Warner, would be smiling as the hairbreadth winner.

Third-party candidacies are often ego trips, pure and simple. But in races as close as this one has been, they can be consequential. It seems only fitting that we Democrats stop licking our bruises long enough to say thanks to Mr. Sarvis.

The “Libertarians, without a candidate of their own, would otherwise vote for Republicans” theory is not so sound, and it’s not a factor Republicans should base a strategy on.

Those willing to vote Libertarian — as opposed to those who describe themselves as libertarian or having some libertarian views — are usually deeply attached to policy positions that are still pretty unpopular to Republicans as a whole — oftentimes (though not always) a quasi-isolationist or outright isolationist foreign policy, drug legalization (often well beyond marijuana), and gay marriage. Many (but not all) Libertarians oppose restrictions on abortion, habitually offer long diatribes about the Federal Reserve and the Gold Standard, and in some quarters, an inability to discuss U.S. foreign policy regarding Israel without lapsing into conspiracy theories and uglier sentiments.

What’s more, a lot of self-identified Libertarians see their policy differences with Republicans as key to their political identity; otherwise, they would be Republicans. To many Libertarians, the difference with Republicans is the point.

Nor is there much evidence that Libertarians fear that their vote will elect a Democrat. For all of of the alleged or potential flaws of voters who choose Libertarian-party candidates, they’re usually not stupid. They know their guy is in the single digits in the polls. They’re not voting in order to vote for a winner, and hearing Republicans complain that the Libertarian cost them the victory doesn’t make them feel guilty or a sense of regret. They may feel a bit of vindication in that result.

For much of autumn, polls suggested that North Carolina Libertarian candidate Sean Haugh would win a margin that was greater than Kay Hagan’s margin over Republican Thom Tillis. As it turns out, Haugh’s 3.7 percent was greater than Tillis’s margin over Hagan.

Most recent Republican campaigns, from the Romney-Ryan ticket to Ed Gillespie, did not explicitly or vocally run on the positions that most irritate Libertarians — a “let’s invade everywhere” foreign policy, support for the war on drugs, opposition to gay marriage, or leading cheers for the Federal Reserve. For those who have chosen to vote Libertarian in recent cycles, it’s not enough for a Republican to merely be quiet about the topics where Libertarians and Republicans disagree or deemphasize those issues; the disagreement itself is a deal-breaker.

If Republicans really fear that Libertarians are going to cost them future elections, it may be simpler to get states to pass changes to election laws like the one in Georgia, requiring the winner to get more than 50 percent of the vote, and force voters to decide between the two major-party candidates in runoff elections.

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