Tightly contested major-party political races are
not exactly factories for lucid, dispassionate political analysis.
Particularly when, as in Virginia’s gubernatorial race last week, a
third party candidate draws more votes than the margin of victory
between the two leading candidates.
Over at Forbes.com, Carrie Sheffield asks “Who
Will Be the Next Libertarian Spoiler?” Her piece starts as
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy Cato Unbound as
much as the next supply-sider. But I don’t understand why
it’s not uncommon that libertarian candidates play spoiler to
Republican candidates. Too often this throws the race to a Democrat
who’s much farther removed from the libertarian’s ideology than the
Over at Reason, Matt Welch identified
seven congressional cases last year where the libertarian
candidate garnered more support than the margin between a
victorious Democrat and vanquished Republican. The most recent
glaring case in point is the Virginia gubernatorial race, where
governor-elect Terry McAuliffe (47.6 percent of the vote) could
have lost to Republican Ken Cuccinelli (45.4 percent of the vote)
were it not for Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis, who won 6.6
percent of the vote.
Here’s an important point for those trying to blame Sarvis
voters for throwing the election to Terry McAuliffe:
Sarvis voters didn’t throw the election to Terry
McAuliffe. No really, they didn’t. According to
CNN’s exit polling unit, “if Sarvis had not been in the race,
exit polls indicate McAuliffe would have beaten Cuccinelli by 7
points (50%-43%).” According to
ABC News’ analysis, “Libertarian Robert Sarvis, may have made
it closer for McAuliffe than it would have been otherwise. Had he
not been on the ballot, a third of his voters said they’d have
supported McAuliffe – slightly more than twice as many as said
they’d have gone for Cuccinelli.” In other words, the whole hook
for the column is bogus.
Sheffield deploys as supporting evidence for her thesis that
“too often” the Libertarian “throws the race to a Democrat” this
Nov. 12, 2012 blog post of mine pointing out seven federal
races where the margin of victory was lower than what the LP
candidate received. As telegraphed by the use of the scare-quote
“‘Spoiler'” in my headline, having third-party candidates beat the
margin of victory does NOT mean that they threw the election to the
winner. To arrive at that conclusion you need to not only assume
that votes by definition belong to one of two major parties (an
assumption that I will go along with for the moment), but also to
have some idea of who they would have voted for (if anyone) had the
third-party candidate not been on the ballot.
To that effect, this follow-up
Nov. 16, 2012 post of mine applied a formula derived from a
Reason-Rupe pre-election poll of Gary Johnson supporters (who
leaned 53% Republican, 38% Democrat, 10% independent) onto eight
congressional races that had been flagged as possible LP spoilers
Daily Kos chart. My conclusion?
[A]s best as I can calculate–there are no
spoilers in the chart above. Obviously, there are reasons to
believe that the 53-38-10 formula is flawed, but (unlike the
implied 100-0-0 number people sometimes use to divvy up third-party
votes), at least it’s based on real polling data.
With a year’s hindsight, I would amend that to say you can begin
to make a convincing LP-spoiler claim in exactly one 2012
congressional race: Democrat John Tierney’s 48.2%-47.2% win over
Republican Rich Tisei in a Massachusetts 6th district race where
Libertarian Daniel Fishman received 4.6% of the vote. So there you
have it: 435 members of Congress, 33 senators, 13 governors, and
one president were elected in November 2012; of those 482 electoral
outcomes only one (to the best of my knowledge) can be plausibly
argued to have been affected by an LP candidate. And yet, in the
face of a Virginia race that does not add to that tally, we’re
worried about the next Libertarian spoiler?
Well, at least Sheffield didn’t use the Sarvis case as occasion
for a strange I-break-with-thee rant about libertarians
and the allegedly solutions-averse, possibly hooker-banging rabble
at Reason magazine. Derek Hunter, come on down!
after the Virginia election, in a Townhall column illustrated by a
victorious Terry McAuliffe, Derek Hunter laid out “The
Problem With Libertarians.” Starts like this:
There was a time I called myself a Libertarian. And there was a
time I was a Libertarian. I just wanted to get government to leave
me alone, to leave people alone and to go all crazy and limit
itself to doing only that which is spelled out clearly in the
Constitution. That was what a Libertarian was. But it’s not
So how did libertarianism leave Derek Hunter?
They went from the movement for individual responsibility, small
government and free markets to a gaggle of misfits who want pot and
prostitution legalized and a total non-interventionist foreign
That pretty much sums it up.
Honestly, what does being a Libertarian mean beyond legalizing
drugs, banging hookers and sitting by while the rest of the world
blows itself up?
This about captures the quality of Hunter’s analysis. At a time
when libertarians (who Hunter is using the capital-L descriptor to
discuss here) represent a newly
growing bloc of American voters, are affecting modern life in
all kinds of beneficial ways outside the scrum of electoral
politics, and are making
recently unprecedented inroads in the Republican Party in a way
that has had tangible effects on
civil-liberties politics, and
reckless foreign intervention, now we’re talking about
“a gaggle of misfits” who just want to bang hookers?
Hunter then manages to mis-portray Reason even while
praising (thanks!) our work:
The great Reason magazine is a wonderful
publication filled with great articles, solid journalism you won’t
find elsewhere…and a voice that does little more than complain.
Reason is great at highlighting abuses by every
level of government, stories ignored by other media outlets. But
you won’t find much in the way of philosophy or solutions. (There’s
some, it just doesn’t seem to be a focus.) They preach to the
choir, and it ends there.
True story: In the same week Hunter was writing this complaint,
I was busy proofreading for our next print issue a feature about
using crowdsourcing to fix…potholes.
As many of
our libertarian-movement critics will be first to tell you,
Reason is forever “compromising” pure philosophical
principles by attempting to apply libertarian insights onto the
very non-libertarian real policy world we inhabit. So we publish a
Percent Solution” about affixing federal spending to a
percentage of GDP rather than merely complain that most federal
government activity is morally and constitutionally illegitimate
(the upshot is that our solutions end up sounding like
those being offered by a new generation of libertarian-leaning
Republicans). The same impulse is behind our calls to replace
entitlements with a real safety net (rather than ripping up
slowly unwind Fannie and Freddie (rather than ending them
federal transportation spending (rather than just getting rid
of it), and on and on.
This approach is baked right into Reason’s DNA. Robert
Poole wrote the first real journalistic case for deregulating
airlines in the September 1969 issue
of Reason, and is as responsible for the real-world
airline deregulation and privatization
as anyone alive. Poole, who is still Director of
Transportation Policy for the Reason Foundation (the public-policy work of which embodies
the very definition of pragmatically applying libertarian insights
onto the fallen world of governance), described in our
2008 oral history of Reason how the magazine made the
deliberate choice early on to not preach to the choir, but
rather engage in the world outside our comfort zone:
We said, “Let’s leave movement stuff to movement zines and go
back to our original vision and make reason a competitor
to National Review and The
Nation and engage in the battle of ideas with the whole
spectrum of thinking people.” We’ve tried to stick with that ever
since, with different ways to carry that idea out.
mentions what kind of “solutions” he has in mind, but since he
spends five paragraphs complaining about the anti-John McCain
sentiment he witnessed at a 2008 D.C. election night happy hour
co-sponsored by Reason and America’s Future Foundation (I wasn’t
there, FWIW), it’s probably safe to infer that cheering for the
electoral success of Republicans, no matter
how big-government they might be, is a solution in and of
Libertarians have devolved from the pro-liberty wing of the
right side of the ledger to the annoying kid who, when he doesn’t
get 100 percent of what he wants, takes his ball and goes home. The
team he agrees with more than half the time loses to the team he
barely agrees with at all, and he cheers while marinating in his
This revealing paragraph makes broader assumptions that don’t
reflect the lived-in reality of voter behavior. For example,
this 2010 analysis from David Boaz and David Kirby, libertarian
voters in 2008 backed McCain over Obama by 71% to 27%, a sharp
increase over their 21-point preference for George W. Bush in 2004.
poll just prior to the 2012 election showed even bigger
libertarian support for Mitt Romney, 77% to 20%.
And yet Hunter is exercised about libertarians’ alleged “‘my way
or the highway’ approach to electoral politics,” and “100
percent-or-nothing purity tests” (an odd complaint in a piece—and
paragraph!—that spends time fretting that people like Bill Maher
are diluting the libertarian brand, and so need to be more loudly
repudiated by libertarian organizations).
category error here is assuming that the fortunes of libertarianism
rise and fall on the narrow issue of the GOP winning elections.
Republicans pretty much ran Washington, D.C. from 2001-2006, and
accomplished roughly nothing of a libertarian nature (not
surprising, since they campaigned and conceived of themselves on
explicitly anti-libertarian grounds).
As Nick Gillespie and I argue in
The Declaration of Independents, there is ample reason to
believe that Republicans became more interested in such
long-neglected issues as fiscal restraint precisely when they
realized that they could no longer count on automatic votes from
people who actually believed in limiting government. The more the
“Liberty Movement” gains traction within the GOP, the more
interesting the GOP becomes. And the more any politician
embraces any libertarian solution, the more that
libertarian-minded folk will put aside differences on other issues
and try to get positive stuff done, piece by piece. And yes, that
damn well includes attempting to wipe away each and every vestige
of the Drug War, one of the single worst government policies in the
history of the United States.
Meanwhile, most libertarian victories—like most other things
that are worth celebrating in life—happen far, far away from
Capitol Hill. For copious examples of such, I recommend picking up
Reason’s latest issue, which has a package of stories
under the rubric of “Technology vs. The
Mediate’s Andrew Kirell responded to Hunter’s piece
here; Hunter fired back
from Hit & Run http://reason.com/blog/2013/11/11/sarvis-non-role-in-mcauliffes-victory-ov