Is GOP Losing the Libertarian West?

Ryan Sager argues that the Republican party is in danger of losing its majority status in national elections by courting Southeastern Evangelicals too much while alienating Western Libertarians.

In fact, it’s looking more and more likely that the eight states of the Southwest and the broader interior West — Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — are on their way to becoming the next great swing region in American politics. As the Republican Party tilts on its South-West axis, increasingly favoring southern values (religion, morality, tradition) over western ones (freedom, independence, privacy), the Democrats have been presented with a tremendous opportunity. If the Republican Party doesn’t want to lose its hold over all of the West, as it lost hold of once-reliable California more than a decade ago, its leaders are going to have to rethink their embrace of big-government, big-religion conservatism.

Why? The interior West is not the South — not by demography and not by ideology.

First, take religion. Generally, as progressive Paul Waldman points out in his new book, Being Right Is Not Enough, Republican strongholds have lots of evangelicals, Democratic strongholds have very few, and swing states are in between. By this rule of thumb, the Southwest fits neatly into the “swing” category. But so does the interior Northwest, which is typically considered more socially conservative and more solidly Republican. Evangelicals make up between 29 percent and 33 percent of the population in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming — figures much closer to California’s 28 percent or Maine’s 26 percent than to Virginia’s 41 percent or Texas’s 51 percent.


To give a small sample of the results recounted in my book: Almost twice as many people in the interior West say that religion is “not that important to me” as say the same in the South (30 percent versus 17 percent); both the Pacific Coast and the Northeast also hover at around 30 percent on that question. On gay rights, only 39 percent of southerners think homosexuality “should be accepted by society,” while 53 percent in the interior West support tolerance of gays. (That figure bumps up to 60 percent on the Pacific Coast and in the Northeast.) Similarly, 53 percent of southerners think public-school libraries should ban “books that contain dangerous ideas,” versus 44 percent in the interior West.

In other words, while the interior West is just as fiscally conservative as the South, it is clearly more socially libertarian. (Other hints on this front include medical marijuana laws out West, resolutions against the Patriot Act passed by legislatures out West and a rebellion against the No Child Left Behind Act by Colorado and Utah.) And as the Republican Party embraces the big government it once fought against, and increasingly stakes its political fortunes on cultural hot-buttons such as gay marriage and flag burning, libertarian-minded voters are up for grabs.

He expands on this idea in a much longer piece, “Purple Mountains,” in the current Atlantic Monthly (available only to subscribers).

Dan Drezner
is “only 50% convinced,” although he doesn’t specify which 50%. I’m probably closer to 75% convinced, mostly because libertarian minded Westerners tend to be strong national security proponents and I’m not persuaded they will find the Democratic alternative palatable.

Still, there’s not much doubt that the GOP has redefined its base almost exclusively on social conservative lines in recent years. That we no longer call Barry Goldwater’s progeny “conservatives” is rather telling.

FILED UNDER: LGBTQ Issues, Political Theory, Religion, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Mac says:

    This is as it should be.

    Libertarians are not true conservatives, and in the end will cost the GOP far more than it could ever gain.

    Libertarians are no friends of true conservatives. One needs only look at the pages here on OTB and watch while libertarians constantly shill for big oil, big energy, big pharma, and beat the drum for divorcing social issues from any moral framework.

    Libertarians constantly try to attach themselves to conservatism and Republicans because their desperate for legitimacy and they understand that the left can’t offer much in that arena.

    Conservatives and Republicans in general would do well to speak to their base, hold their moral high-ground and ignore the tin-foil hat wearing libertarians who are trying to convince them that repealing marijuana laws and allowing corporatism to run rough-shod all over the American people will win them the next election.

    There is NO way to reconcile authentic conservatism with social(ist) utopianism. Period.


  2. spencer says:

    People I respect believe that the Southwest is where Hillery will win enough votes to be the next President.

  3. I’m not to convinced by the data he presents. It looks like he selected it to prove his point. As an example, he notes that the interior west is 2/3 the way towards the Pacific coast compared to the South. But look at the state referendums on banning gay marriage. Nevada and Montana 67%, Utah 66%. Compare this with Oregon at 57%. Is this less than the south? Sure. But it is hardly a tidal wave towards the liberal side.

    Look at the 2004 election results. The eight states he cited (Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) averaged a better than 20 point spread in favor of Bush. Some of those (New Mexico 0.79%, Nevada 2.59% and Colorado 4.67%) are certainly in potential play (any state with a less than 5% margin would have to be at least considered for being in play). But the other states have a long way to go to be in play (Utah 45.54%, Wyoming 39.79%, Idaho 38.12%, Montana 20.50%, Arizona 10.47%).

    Compare that to the south (Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana), which only averaged 15.2%. Admittedly only Florida was anywhere close with 5.01% margin, but if you say that the south is solid for the GOP, then the west is 5% more solid for the GOP in 2004.

    The best argument here is that 3 of the 5 states with a closer than 5% margin for Bush were in the west. The other two were in the Midwest (Iowa 0.67% and Ohio 2.11%). The three western states in play can be explained more by the immigration into the states and changing demographics rather than some schism with the GOP.

    Contrast that with 6 states having a closer than 5% margin that went for Kerry. 3 in the Midwest (Wisconsin 0.38%, Michigan 3.42% and Minnesota 3.48%). Two in the northeast (New Hampshire 1.37% and Pennsylvania 2.50%). One in the Pacific coast (Oregon 4.16%).

    The GOP had four states with a 5 to 10% margin, all in the south except Missouri at 7.20%. The democrats had six states with a 5 to 10% margin, three in the north east and three in the pacific coast (including Hawaii).

    So the great shift he sees is from the mountain west states with the highest average vote margin for Bush (20.3%), away from the old south (15.2%) and towards the pacific coast three states which averaged 7.1% for Kerry. Sorry, I don’t buy.

    If you want to look towards trends, the GOP has 46 EV won with margins less than 5% and 57 EV won with margins between 5 and 10%. The democrats have 68 EV from states won with less than 5% and 92 EV from state won with 5 to 10% margins.

  4. James Joyner says:

    John: Some good points. Part of the South/West disparity in the Bush vote is the heavy presence of black voters in the South, which go overwhelmingly for the Dems, vice essentially no blacks in the Western “purple” states Sager cites.

    I do think several of the Western states are trending Democrat for reasons aside from libertarian ideology–notably the Hispanic population growth and the fact that parts are becoming essentially suburbs of California because of housing prices. Still, they have a way to go.

    Still, the GOP had a “lock” on California as recently as 16 years ago.

  5. James,
    If your contention is that 16 years (heck even in 2008) we are likely to see shifts in the states that are were in 2004 GOP or Dem, I’m with you. And I agree with you that the western states that are most likely in play says more about their recent immigration and demographic changes than it does about some fundamental schism in the GOP. I think the writer reflected more the liberal MSM wish than reality in the article.

    I suspect that we will see some potential defections from the west (e.g. New Mexico in 2000 though that was heavily influenced by a blizzard that drove done rural voting). But we are also likely to see some defections from the dem column in the Midwest (Wisconsin, Minnesota and to a lesser extent Michigan). The defections the dems are in danger of have more EV value than the GOP potential defections.

    There is also an alternative view of California. Since 1916, California has gone democratic 11 times and republican 12 times. It just so happens that these switches match to the national popular vote every time but thrice.

    1960 when they went for native son Nixon by 0.55% compared to the national vote for Kennedy of 0.16%.

    1976 when they went for Ford by 1.78% compared to the national vote for Carter of 2.06% and

    2004 when they went for Kerry by 9.95% compared to the national vote margin of 2.46% for Bush.

    Now that’s not as good as Missouri always going with the national popular vote winner every year except 2000 (when they went for the EV winner) and 1956 when they decided they didn’t like Ike after all.

    Based on that history, California would seem more persuadable than I think it really is.

  6. Mark Jaquith says:

    I’ll buy that the Republican party is losing libertarian-minded voters, but I find it hard to believe that a libertarian-minded person would vote for the average Democratic candidate. Libertarians are fervent enemies of socialism and strong supporters of capitalism. I may not be voting for Republicans anymore, but it’d take a lot to get me to vote for a Democrat. My main problem with Republicans is that their actions don’t match their rhetoric. All it took was one terrorist attack to get Republicans to profess their love of big government and sell their freedom in the interest of a little peace of mind. If they actually stuck to their principles and cut the fat, reduced the size of the government, stood up for freedom (real freedom, not “safety” with an American flag fluttering behind it) and gave me more control over my own money, I could put up with their sweaty-browed treatises about how gay marriage is ruining their families. But there’s not much that’d convince me to put up with the Democrats’ push towards socialism, so I can’t really consider them an alternative.

  7. Jay says:

    This is news? Some of us have known this for over a year, and have been observing it with much trainwreck-like fascination. Not to mention disdain for what the GOP was doing by way of attempted suicide.

    I wouldn’t have phrased it exactly as “western libertarians,” but the party needs the libertarian leaners, the fiscal but not so much social conservatives, the people who respect religion but won’t be ruled by it, those of us who remember and believe in the Constitution and are capable of reading comprehension of same, or it won’t stay in power or, as it appeared to be headed for doing, become all but unstoppable.

    It’s been a slap in the face to many of us, the antics pulled as if the religious conservatives were all that ever mattered, and thank you for electing us but the rest – the majority – of you can go screw now. It’s insane.

    To be just noticing? That was one long nap.

  8. James Joyner says:

    John: I think that’s right. The positions of the parties–and the country, for that matter–are constantly changing.

  9. floyd says:

    having held my nose and voted republican for the last several cycles,i have come to the conclusion that nobody likes or is represented by the republican party. the democrats have simply ,for some time now, insisted that the public vote republican by being so perverse,indecent, and distructive of liberty as to preclude the possibility of winning the support of any decent thinking person

  10. floyd says:

    “distructive” should read “destructive”