Many people on the left still dismiss the tea party as the same old religious right, but the evidence says they are wrong. The tea party has strong libertarian roots and is a functionally libertarian influence on the Republican Party.
Compiling data from local and national polls, as well as dozens of original interviews with tea party members and leaders, we find that the tea party is united on economic issues, but split on the social issues it tends to avoid. Roughly half the tea party is socially conservative, half libertarian -- or, fiscally conservative, but socially moderate to liberal.
The tea party is upending the conventional wisdom that Republican candidates must placate socially conservative voters to win primaries. Increasingly, Republican candidates must win over tea party voters on libertarian economic issues.
Yesterday, a separate tea party study adds more data to the picture. Political scientist Ron Rapoport at William and Mary released a report that summarizes the findings of a survey of 12,000 supporters of FreedomWorks (where I am a vice president) carried out from December 2011 to January 2012. Given that
Ninety-eight percent of FreedomWorks members are Tea Party identifiers, and almost 13% of all Tea Party identifiers are members of FreedomWorks -- the largest membership contingent for any national Tea Party-related group. Therefore, to understand the Tea Party movement, its dynamics, issue positions, political activity and behavior, understanding FreedomWorks supporters is a good place to start.
The report finds:
- Libertarians are a significant part of FreedomWorks supporters, comprising about 30% of the group. On both immigration and abortion, libertarians (as reflected in that party's platforms over the past three elections), take positions quite distinct from the Republican Party and from many other Tea Party supporters. On abortion, libertarians were about 20% less likely to support a constitutional amendment banning abortions, and about 12% less likely to support stricter limits on immigration.
- The most important factor in predicting candidate support is libertarian identification. Among libertarians (who comprised almost a third of FreedomWorks supporters), Ron Paul was the top choice, while among others he was at the bottom.
- 2008 Paul supporters among FreedomWorks supporters were also distinctive from supporters of any other candidate. Only 40% of them did something for the McCain-Palin ticket in the 2008 general election, compared with 70% of the supporters of every other major nomination candidate from that year.
These findings echo our own. Libertarians are significant part of the tea party story, and hold different views on a variety of issues and candidates. However, Rapoport may underestimate the number of libertarians at FreedomWorks, and by implication the tea party more generally.
To identify libertarians, Rapoport's survey asked respondents if they were libertarian, "yes" or "no." This method yields about 13 percent libertarians in a national sample. However, as David Boaz and I found in our previous studies on libertarian voters, many people who hold libertarian beliefs are unfamiliar with the word "libertarian." Using broader questions probing background beliefs, we estimate that libertarians are between 15-24 percent of the electorate--depending on how many and how strict the questions. Using a broader method to identify libertarians, Rapaport's data may well find the similar 50-50 split to our own data sources.
Perhaps Paul Ryan moves tea party libertarians more than conservatives. No doubt Romney's famously data-driven campaign tested Ryan's impact on various segments of the electorate. If 2012 becomes a turnout election, Rapaport's data suggests that tea party libertarians and Ron Paul supporters would otherwise be less inclined to turn out and help than conservative tea partiers.
Ryan may well be the presidential politics expression of a "functionally libertarian" candidate. He's no libertarian, for sure. But by emphasizing fiscal, rather than social issues, he may unite tea partiers, appeal to libertarians and win general election voters concerned about the economy.
David Kirby is vice president at FreedomWorks and associate policy analyst for the Cato Institute