Home > Spotlight Analysis > Libertarians, Liberals and Conservatives, Oh My!
Libertarians, Liberals and Conservatives, Oh My!
Joseph Goodman,

One of many notable findings from the recently released American Values Survey is the extent to which libertarians – who comprise seven percent of the American public – exhibit a unique political profile that on some issues is closer to self-identified liberals (20 percent of the public) and on others is more aligned with self-identified conservatives (32 percent of the public).

On economic issues – such as environmental protections and health care – libertarians closely resemble conservatives. Both libertarians and conservatives strongly oppose implementing tougher environmental laws. Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of libertarians and 6-in-10 (60 percent) conservatives oppose enacting tougher laws and regulations to protect the environment even if it raises prices or costs jobs, while three-quarters (75 percent) of self-identified liberals support such a policy.

In addition, nearly all (96 percent) libertarians have an unfavorable view of the 2010 health care law, including 82 percent who say their view of the law is very unfavorable. Conservatives also have an overwhelmingly negative opinion of the health care law, with nearly 8-in-10 (78 percent) expressing unfavorable views. Liberals look dramatically different with nearly 8-in-10 (78 percent) reporting a favorable view of the health care law.

On social questions, libertarians look more like self-identified liberals. Seven-in-ten (70 percent) libertarians and an equal number of liberals (70 percent) favor allowing doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to terminally ill patients. In contrast, a majority (57 percent) of conservatives are opposed to allowing doctors to provide lethal drugs to terminally ill patients wishing to end their lives. On marijuana legalization, the views of liberals and libertarians are also closely aligned: more than 7-in-10 (71 percent) libertarians favor making marijuana legal, as do three-quarters (75 percent) of self-identified liberals. In contrast, nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of conservatives oppose marijuana legalization.

Yet despite maintaining a political profile that is neither consistently liberal nor conservative, when asked to place themselves along the traditional ideological continuum, libertarians largely place themselves on the right. A majority (57 percent) of libertarians identify politically as conservative, while only three percent identify as liberal. Another 39 percent identify as politically moderate.

Libertarian voting patterns reflect this more rightward orientation. Eight-in-ten libertarian voters supported Romney in 2012, while five percent voted for Obama, and 14 percent supported a third-party candidate.

The emergence of new issues that confound a right-left dichotomy, like domestic surveillance and military intervention abroad, may shift libertarian allegiances. But for now, despite their unique profile, libertarians’ voting behavior is not all that different from other conservative constituencies.