Why Candidates Can’t Win By Appealing to Libertarians

Rand Paul may be the Libertarian darling in the 2016 GOP presidential field, but he's going to have to appeal to more mainstream voters in order to win. That's because Libertarians are such a small part of the GOP electorate.

The New York Times' Nate Cohn points out just how big of a minority Libertarian voters are within the GOP. Two-thirds of those who lean toward the Republican party disagree with some of the basic beliefs of Libertarianism. That means Paul, or any candidate, risks failure by appealing to this small subset of voters.

Over all, these voters look more like socially moderate Republicans than traditional libertarians. Perhaps the best evidence for this interpretation is that the more Republicans agree with the libertarian view on issues like marijuana or military intervention, the more liberal they get on guns, the environment, the Constitution and gay rights — even when those views conflict with traditional libertarian philosophy. Their seemingly libertarian views might just be a product of the times — they came of age during an era of liberal cultural norms and an unpopular war overseas — not a philosophical commitment to extremely limited government.

The easiest explanation is age: A staggering 38 percent of the consistently libertarian voters are ages 18 to 34. This isn’t any surprise, as Ron Paul’s strongest support came from young voters in 2012, and early polls suggest this will be Rand’s base of support as well. A recent CNN poll found Mr. Paul at 17 percent of the under-50 vote, but at just 7 percent among those over 50. Similarly, a Washington Post poll gave Mr. Paul 15 percent of the under-50 vote and just 4 percent of those over 50.

This is not the base you want to have in a primary, especially if you’re a Republican. Primary elections attract older voters, not the young. In the 2008 Georgia Republican primary, for instance, 18- to 34-year-old voters represented 13 percent of the electorate, while 55 percent of voters were over age 50.