The GOP’s Libertarian Opening

At the moment, the Republican presidential primary field is shaping up to look awfully country clubbish. Which means that when we step away from it – only seconds after either shrugging or waving arms in disgust – we get the sense that the Establishment really struck back. Former Gov. Jeb Bush (R-FL) staked his claim early on in the crowded field by dropping all his posh corporate board memberships like a bag of golf clubs, and former 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney just can’t spare us the tragedy of watching him dissolve into a spectacular burst of flames – if it was funny in 2012, it’ll be cringeworthy in 2016.

An important question is how far Republicans go in letting its donor class dictate yet another deep pockets nominee when raw votes in election cycles seem increasingly dominated by volatile voters eager to buck conventional wisdom or guys in suits. It’s a tricky balance. But, even as the economy somewhat recovers (not for everyone, though), 2016 could be that kind of cycle once we hit the general. The GOP will want self-control as it rumbles through its primary, burning time and resources to ultimately reveal a sanitized Mad Men protagonist. That won’t fly so much in a general where a significant chunk of the electorate hungers for some nod to authenticity; in the last cycle, many voters may have been fatigued or underwhelmed by President Obama, but at least they felt like he was registering what they were saying. Romney, not so much.

That authenticity factor actually creates an opportunity for Republicans should Democrats, as expected, play it safe and field Hillary Clinton as their nominee. Libertarians can play a key role in that.

Washington Monthly’s Ed Kilgore argues that libertarians are “not really libertarians.” That’s a strong point, but what matters more than ideology are perceptions of strategic political value. Republicans don’t have to care who’s a credentialed libertarian or not, just about the demographics of that potential voting bloc. So, in terms of an election, it’s not who’s a libertarian and who is not – it’s how cool it is to call yourself one. There might not be a “Libertarian moment” as Pew’s Jocelyn Kiley suggests, but there’s definitely an identifiable bloc of younger voters who are down with issues they deem libertarian (whether they know what the hell that means or not). Those of us who follow politics for a living have a habit of quickly lumping people into neat partisan and ideological corners, not recognizing that people who don’t follow politics for a living really don’t care about that as much.

Politically, there are a number of clues in that Pew poll – the most recent clinical take on libertarians we’ve got so far – which should concern Democrats:

More college graduates (15%) than those with no more than a high school education (7%) identified as libertarians. There also were partisan differences; 14% of independents and 12% of Republicans said they are libertarian, compared with 6% of Democrats. Libertarianism is associated with limited government involvement in the social sphere. In this regard, self-described libertarians are somewhat more supportive of legalizing marijuana than the public overall (65% vs. 54%).

Out of those who call themselves libertarian – 11 percent of the total electorate – a combined 23 percent between the ages of 18-49 identify as such, as well as 12 percent of libertarian whites (a group Republicans always need to rally) and 11 percent of libertarian Latinos (a group that is the gateway to Republicans offsetting Democratic control of diverse votes). An 11 percent voting bloc is significant and could be quite decisive. A deeper look into those Pew numbers finds it leaning in the Republican direction.

Key to that is the dominance of the younger Gen X and Millenial age brackets. Those between 18-29 aren’t going to remember much about the good old Clinton years (some, were busily slamming their fingers in the alphabet noodle soup when Bill Clinton was president), so it will be hard for the Hillary machine to articulate that, especially when she’s still so cautious on the stump. And this is the group that cares a bit about those social freedom issues like marijuana, NSA surveillance, drones and digital privacy. A candidate like Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) appears to have the edge on those issues for now, and he throws in criminal justice reform for good measure in a clumsy bid to attract minority voters.

Economic populism, which Democrats are latching on to, may actually be a tough sell as a leading agenda item in a climate convinced we’re in a recovery. So, all Republicans need is a movement candidate in the general that strikes that balance between Establishment etiquette and sensibilities while firing up disenchanted kids who believe President Obama duped them. The kids don’t know what libertarianism is, but they’ll know which candidate will let them light up and kick the NSA out of their Twitter feed.

Charles Ellison

Charles Ellison is Politics Contributor for theRoot.com and Washington Correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune. He can be reached via Twitter @ellisonreport