Reince Priebus in January 2011, after winning election as Republican National Committee chairman (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press) Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus  (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

The fourth annual values survey by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) provides a wealth of information on the relationship between the GOP, the tea party and libertarians.

Some highlights of the report include:

“[L]ess than 1-in-10 (7%) Americans are consistent libertarians, and an additional 15% lean libertarian . . . Compared to the general population, libertarians are significantly more likely to be non-Hispanic white, male, and young. Nearly all libertarians are non-Hispanic whites (94%), more than two-thirds (68%) are men, and more than 6-in-10 (62%) are under the age of 50. . . . Libertarians make up a smaller proportion of the Republican Party than other key conservative groups.  Only 12% of self-identified Republicans are libertarians, compared to 20% of Republicans who identify with the Tea Party, 33% who identify with the religious right or conservative Christian movement, and 37% who identify as white evangelical Protestant.

Unsurprisingly, Libertarians share common ground with Republicans on some economic issues. “Nearly all (96%) libertarians have an unfavorable view of the 2010 health care law, compared to 83% of white evangelical Protestants, 78% of Tea Party members, and 89% of Republicans,” but they strongly disagree with evangelical and other religious Republicans (e.g. 57 percent oppose laws restricting abortion and 71 percent favor legalizing marijuana).

With Ron Paul, and now Rand Paul, there’s been a great deal of talk about how Republicans can win over Libertarians as a means of widening their support. However, Libertarians’ small numbers and homogenized demographic as well as the intensity of some of Libertarians’ views shed considerable doubt on this strategy and pose problems for Rand Paul’s presidential ambitions.

For starters, there is a real philosophical divide about what government should do, even between libertarians and limited-government Republicans. Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, who speaks and writes frequently on the topic, says, about the ways the groups differ: “Tone and intensity are two [ways], although many people call themselves Libertarians nowadays but in fact are basically limited government conservatives. One large way, however, is the willingness to seriously think about using government. Conservatives are more willing to accept that government can be used well with reforms (premium support for Medicare, for example) while Libertarians will be suspicious even of that.”

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) may talk favorably about limited but vigorous government, but Libertarians would prefer smaller and inert government. “Libertarians are clearly at odds with the evangelical wing of the party on social issues,” Olsen tells me. “Many evangelicals are also  much more inclined to support interventions in the market that help working families” — such as Mike Huckabee. “Libertarian Republicans are motivated by a desire to cut spending and reduce taxation. They hold their other views, often quietly, but are Republicans rather than Libertarians because of their desire to promote smaller government. As such, they can form coalitions with groups like the tea party and certain business groups on certain government size, scope and responsibility issues, and they can remain in the GOP tent in general elections because of their visceral detest for liberals.”

In electoral term, this means that the hunt for Libertarians may not pay off. For one thing, some people who call themselves “Libertarian” are in essence “limousine liberals.” (As Olsen says, “Once you take social issues off the table, you find the sort of people who [live in] Silicon Valley and Manhattan — affluent liberals who like to make money and like to tax themselves to give it back and aren’t afraid to use government power to promote their view of the world.”) Moreover, there aren’t enough of them either in the primary setting or in a general election if a candidate winds up turning off bigger parts of the coalition. However, an agenda that is additive — appealing to the lion’s share of Republicans, some independents and even some blue-collar Democrats without completely turning off Libertarians — has promise.

Olsen posits:

I believe a GOP majority can be recreated with a world view that focuses more on fairness, including the moral basis for many entitlement programs, and less on power. That view would support a domestic agenda that would significantly shrink the state because many benefits, in the tax code and in programs, cannot stand the light of clear-eyed, common-sense morality. It would, however, recognize that sometimes we need to do more in government, such as making health insurance more widely available and affordable to people who want it but can’t get it. In short, a reform conservatism that focuses on making life
better rather than a neo-Libertarianism that focuses on getting richer.

That sounds like what Ryan and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and others are offering. The language of reform, with a people-focused concern and a tone that does not scare voters who fear extremism of all stripes, also may have the benefit of appealing to women, some minorities and suburbanites. Sometimes good, smart policy does make for good politics. This, quite clearly, is also the path taken by most GOP governors, who are the most popular officials in the party.

What Olsen’s formula entails, however, means that aggressive anti-government rhetoric and disdain for good governance are not going to fly. Libertarians may have rejoiced when the government closed, but this was unpopular across the board with most every other ideological slice of voters. Likewise, the idea that we would privatize Social Security or entities like the Food and Drug Administration or the Securities and Exchange Commission are a nonstarter with most gettable voters.

There is a lot to chew on here. Republicans looking to revive their party would be wise to pay close attention.