Interesting article by Ryan Sager on Reason about the libertarian vote:
The Cato Institute has done excellent work over the last few years tracking the shift in the libertarian vote—the roughly 10 percent to 15 percent of the American public that can be categorized as fiscally conservative and socially liberal.
Based on an analysis of the American National Election Studies, Cato found that between 2000 and 2004, there was a substantial flight of libertarians away from the Republican Party and toward the Democrats. While libertarians preferred Bush by a margin of 52 points over Al Gore in 2000, that margin shrank to 21 points in 2004, when many libertarians—disaffected by the Iraq war, massive GOP spending increases, and the campaign against gay marriage—switched to John Kerry.
Polling on libertarian voters is somewhat sparse during elections, but there are a couple of data points and some broad trends that can give us an idea of where things stand now. An early October Zogby Interactive poll found that self-identified libertarians (about 6 percent of the poll's sample) give McCain only 36 percent of their vote, lower than the 45 percent and 42 percent Zogby found them giving Bush in the last two elections. The libertarian voters claim to be defecting mainly to Libertarian Party candidate Bob Barr and other third-party candidates, not to Obama. A Gallup poll conducted in September, which identified libertarian-minded voters with a series of ideological questions about the role of government in the economy and society (pegging them at around 23 percent of the electorate), found that only 43 percent of these voters plan pull the lever for McCain, slightly fewer than did for Bush in 2004. The Gallup poll also finds a significant uptick in libertarians planning to vote third-party, with 3.5 percent supporting Barr.
What I think is going on here is a general perception among libertarians that there is really no difference between McCain and Obama, so you may as well vote for Barr. McCain and Obama both are pretty statist, Obama moreso on the economy, McCain moreso on foreign policy. And McCain-Feingold is a true abomination. In which case it is a toss-up, or may as well vote for Barr (or I've also heard that Chuck Baldwin guy that I don't know anything about). Several of the libertarians in the American Conservative's issue on "Who are you voting for?" take this position as well.
One reason I speculate that this is what I "think is going on here" among libertarians is that until fairly recently this is exactly what I was thinking, even until relatively recently, and I was genuinely on the fence between McCain and Barr (acknowledging that Barr is both a bit of a nut and has some statist tendencies himself). But one reason why I linked Pete duPont's sobering WSJ column the other day is that I have slowly come to the conclusion that as bad as McCain is, Obama really is much, much worse than I realized for a long time. Maybe I'm just slower at this than others, but it really took a long for it to sink in to me exactly how far left Obama really is. On every single issue that I am aware of, he seems to be at the far left end of the Democratic Party spectrum. I mean really out there.
I think that my slowness to really pick up on this was due to several factors. First, Obama's demeanor is essentially moderate--he doesn't come across as a Howard Dean crazy type. I think this leads one to assume his policies are moderate. Second, my resistance to McCain was really quite strong--I've criticized him here before, especially for the way it seems that he approaches problems. Third, until recently McCain has really run a terrible campaign in terms of explaining the differences between himself and Obama in terms of illustrating exactly how far left Obama is. Fourth, because of media bias, the media has tended to reinforce the idea that Obama is a moderate and not to highlight the embarrassing parts of his message.
Perhaps most fundamentally, given the history of the world over the past 25 years I think I just had assumed that no serious politician or thinker would in this day and age hold the sorts of views that Obama seems to hold. Raising taxes in a recession, protectionism, abolition of the secret ballot for union elections, big spending increases, nationalized health care, and most appallingly (to my mind) the potential reimposition of the "Fairness Doctrine"--I mean this is pretty serious stuff. And when combined with a Democratic Congress, I think we may be talking about (to use Thomas Sowell's recent phrase) a "point of no return." I guess I just assumed that Obama would be sort of Bill Clintonish--"the era of big government is over" and all that stuff. That he would have absorbed the basic insights of recent decades on taxes, trade, regulation, etc.
What could we expect from McCain? Not much--but holding the status quo on some areas and perhaps a few improvements in others. Perhaps an end to the incontinent spending of the past few years. Elimination of earmarks. Free trade. No fairness doctrine (campaign finance reform is bad, but I think the Fairness Doctrine is much worse). A much better health care insurance policy. I'm not as optimistic as some of my friends that McCain's judges will be good, but I think Obama's judges likely would be really bad.
So what does this add up to? I totally can appreciate the view of libertarians who fundamentally don't see any real difference that matters between McCain and Obama and so will vote for Barr or another third-party candidate. I think that is a completely reasonable position.
But as I've looked at the actual policy positions of the two more closely, it seems to me that Obama really seems to be pretty far out there. He is no Bill Clinton. And from what I can tell none of those libertarians or conservatives who are Obama supporters are attracted to because of his positions (other than those who care strongly about the Iraq war and foreign policy), but rather because of who he is. Obama is a compelling personality. But in reading these encomiums to him, I haven't seen any explanation as to how Obama's policies on tax, trade, spending, or regulatory would be friendlier to individual liberty than what is likely to be McCain's (as weak as those will be). As someone observed somewhere recently, this is about the first time in history that you have endorsements from people who endorse Obama on the hope that he won't do what he says he'll do rather than because of what he says he'll do.
Thomas Sowell described the choice the other day as "a choice between disaster and catastrophe" which doesn't seem that far off for someone who believes in limited government and individual liberty.
Anyway, after really exploring their policies a bit more closely, I have finally come to the conclusion that as bad as they both are, there really is in the end a pretty significant difference between the two of them. Especially when you throw into the mix a Democratic Congress, perhaps with a veto-proof majority.
I can see why other libertarians may not see a big enough difference between them to really matter and will vote for Barr (or no one). And I think that is an eminently reasonable position in this election. But having read the Reason article, and having been in the same spot until relatively recently, I figured I'd mention my thinking.
In my initial post I had misplaced my phrase about what I am most appalled about--the reimposition of the fairness doctrine, which I have now corrected.