The Washington Post

The rise of the libertarians — and what it means for politics

During the 2012 Republican primaries, young Ron Paul supporters received national attention that far outweighed their influence on the party's eventual presidential pick. NPR quoted a Georgetown graduate student who said about millennials, "This is the most libertarian generation that has ever existed. I just think it's taking a little bit longer for people to realize ... but in 10 or 20 years, once our age group starts to have more of an influence in society, we're going to see very significant shifts in what's happening."

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We're only two years removed from his prediction, but it's clear that libertarians are becoming a vocal faction within Republican ranks. In the annual straw poll that takes place at the Conservative Political Action Committee, Rand Paul took first place, winning 31 percent of the vote despite the fact there were 24 other people on the ballot. Paul also won the straw poll in 2013.

The pollster who has run the straw poll since CPAC's founding says nearly half of the weekend's voters were 18 to 25. Eighteen to 25 year olds are also the demographic least likely to vote, so the populace of CPAC might not match up perfectly with the populace that will pick the 2016 presidential candidate. As Molly Ball pointed out in her CPAC recap, "Though CPAC draws right-wingers of all stripes, from Oliver North to Santorum to a guy on stilts in a Ronald Reagan costume, it is increasingly dominated by libertarians, a combined result of their passionate engagement in movement politics and the discount rates the conference offers to college students." Republicans may be subsidizing their young libertarian members, but they aren't quite listening to them yet.

But, as that grad student said in 2012, 10 or 20 years from now, libertarians will likely be the Republicans to watch if current trends hold. Here are a few ways to look at the the libertarian crowd in 2014, as the group tries to expand their influence within the Republican Party.

Libertarians by the numbers

A poll released by the Public Religion Research Institute in October 2013 showed that 22 percent of Americans consider themselves libertarian or lean libertarian. Forty-five percent of libertarians side with Republicans, while 5 percent identify as Democrats. Fifty-three percent of libertarians consider themselves reliable primary voters. A CNN poll from 2011 had 63 percent of respondents saying government was doing too much. A poll commissioned by the Harvard Institute of Politics last year showed that a majority of 18-29 year olds do not want the government collecting any of their personal information data. A new Pew Research Center survey shows that 69 percent of millennials think marijuana should be legalized. Philip Bump at the Atlantic Wire summed up Pew's findings as, "if that portrait holds, it's not terrible news for conservatives. It fits with the growth of political libertarians." However, leaning more libertarian may not stave off the biggest problem the Republican Party currently has. As Claire Thompson noted in February 2012, self-described libertarians trend "white, male, and financially secure." Which happens to be how much of the party writ large trends. If they can only keep the twentysomethings that look like them on board, the Republican Party is going to continue to attract fewer and fewer members of the electorate. Libertarians may grow, but right now, trending toward the Rand model doesn't seem the safest outreach.

Libertarians in the news

Rand Paul is the star and lighthouse of the libertarian movement, as evidenced by his success at the past few CPACs, success he seems to have inherited from his father. The issue that Paul has received the most attention for in 2014 is civil liberty, especially pertaining to Internet privacy concerns after the National Security Agency leaks of last year. He filed a class action lawsuit against the Obama administration in early February over the NSA's collection of phone metadata. Many of his public appearances — including his speech at CPAC this weekend — feature a shout-out to civil liberties. Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who released data to the media, has been described as a "libertarian millennial."

There are plenty of other libertarians at the state and local level that are mixing up party politics on a less noticeable level than Rand Paul and the congregating millennials at National Harbor. Charlie Earl gave the keynote address at the Libertarian Party of Ohio's convention yesterday, railing against state secretary of State Jon Husted for taking Earl off the 2014 gubernatorial ballot because of a clerical order. Or as Earl more colorfully put it, “I really am the equivalent of a book in Boston. Yeah, I’ve been banned." He was clearly very passionate about the libertarian issues he spoke of during his speech, seeing as he cried twice within five minutes of starting, apologizing with a “Excuse me. When I cry, I snot.” In the Florida special congressional election under close watch nationally, Libertarian candidate Lucas Overby is seen as someone who could change up the results, pulling Democratic or Republican voters away from a very close race. A group of 50 Libertarians (and members of the Free State project — have moved into the tiny town of Grafton, New Hampshire and made town meetings hectic. That's just a start. What does this all say about libertarians and the future? Well, that they are there. That there are many people who agree with them on the issues they fret about most, even if these people don't self-identify with the group. And, that libertarians have yet to win any big victories — they are still on the sidelines, bringing up issues for the main political actors to discuss without getting much of the limelight themselves. Could this change if Rand Paul and his platform continue gaining ground? Sure, but at least for now, lets not read too much into Rand Paul's luck, especially given the fact that when you broaden the electorate beyond CPAC to the general public, Rand Paul is still no different from the other hundred names that get mentioned as potential presidential material. There are many different wings of the Republican Party fighting for a chance to turn their presidential fortunes, and no reason to believe that its the libertarians' turn.


"As CPAC ends, rival Republican factions remain adamant in opposition" — Robert Costa, The Washington Post

"Putin's Pique" — David Remnick, The New Yorker

"In Florida, a local race with national scripts" — David Lauter, The Los Angeles Times

Jaime Fuller reports on national politics for "The Fix" and Post Politics. She worked previously as an associate editor at the American Prospect, a political magazine based in Washington, D.C.

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