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Political scientist finds disconnect in Libertarian Party platform, voters

University of Dayton political scientist Christopher Devine has written the definitive academic study of the Libertarian Party — America’s third largest political party. He documents a growing disconnect between the party’s radical platform and the more mainstream, “fiscally conservative and socially liberal” policy preferences of its rank-and-file supporters.

His research is timely. This week, Michigan Congressman Justin Amash announced that he would run for the Libertarian Party’s presidential nomination at next month’s national convention.

Devine examines the Libertarian Party’s history, electoral performance and prospects for growth in the future. In addition, he conducts the first-ever survey-based analysis of party voters’ and  members’ policy views for Beyond Donkeys and Elephants: Minor Political Parties in Contemporary American Politics. The book, released this spring, is the “most comprehensive account ever written of contemporary minor political parties in the United States,” according to publisher University Press of Kansas. 

The Libertarian Party “portrays itself as the third choice for Americans who find themselves dissatisfied with the two-party system — not a fringe group of small-government radicals but a mainstream alternative to the Democratic and Republican parties with broad electoral appeal and the potential to emerge as a major party in its own right,” Devine writes.

Devine’s analysis shows that Libertarian Party voters and members are fiscally conservative and socially liberal — but not radically so. Essentially, they agree with Republicans on economic policy and Democrats on social policy. However, Libertarians are less likely than Democrats or Republicans to support the use of military force. “Yet they hardly qualify as extreme in this regard — or even ‘noninterventionist,’ really,” Devine writes. 

“Libertarians, it would seem, are not nearly as radical as their party platform,” he writes. For instance, only 12% of Libertarian Party voters agree that taxes should never be increased.

Devine shows that Libertarians’ successes mostly have come at the local level. No one running as a Libertarian ever has been elected to federal office, or to any state legislature since 2000. Amash’s recent party switch makes him the first Libertarian ever to serve in the U.S. Congress. 

Amash is hoping to build on the Libertarian Party’s success in 2016, when presidential candidate Gary Johnson appeared on all 50 state ballots and won 3.3% of the national popular vote — three times more than the nearest competitor, Jill Stein of the Green Party, and more than any other minor-party candidate since 1996. Devine also notes that in 2016, the Libertarian Party had more registered voters (approximately 500,000) than any other minor party, and won a higher percentage of the vote in U.S. Senate races than at any other point in party history.

To succeed in 2020 and beyond, Devine argues, the Libertarian Party must focus less on ideological purity and more on appealing to the broader electorate with its “fiscally conservative and socially liberal” message. It could do so by moderating the party’s radical platform, and by nominating a credible presidential candidate, such as Congressman Amash -- even if doing so may upset the party’s ideological base. 

“The change that they seek may never come,” Devine writes, “if Libertarians continue to win only the most votes among losing parties.”


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