Margin Of Error: Breaking down the polls

Margin Of Error: Breaking down the polls

Libertarian voters could swing close Senate race

Posted July 1, 2014
Updated July 2, 2014

Sean Haugh, Libertarian Senate candidate

— A second poll in the past few weeks finds Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan with a slim lead over Republican challenger Thom Tillis, 42 to 36 percent. Like the Public Policy Polling poll, this one, sponsored by Civitas, finds that the Libertarian candidate, Sean Haugh, is polling around double-digits (9 percent to be precise).

In my last blogpost, I took a critical look at Haugh’s polling numbers. I argued his polling support of approximately 10 percent would not be matched by his actual results come November. My reasoning was straightforward.

First, no Libertarian candidate in North Carolina has received more than 3.3 percent of the vote in a U.S. Senate race since 1992. Interestingly, Haugh also ran in 2002, garnering just 1.5 percent of the vote.

Second, I argued that support for Haugh in the PPP poll was exaggerated for two reasons. One, some Republicans are experiencing “sour grapes.” That is, some don’t like the fact their candidate lost in the primary to Tillis, so they express their frustration by saying they will vote for the Libertarian candidate. These voters and Libertarians will realize that, come November, Haugh is highly unlikely to win, so they will vote for one of the two major-party candidates rather than “waste it” on a candidate who can’t win, but in doing so might help their most disliked candidate to win.

A number of readers, including Haugh, contacted me to dispute my claims. Several argued that I was wrong that Libertarians tend to lean Republican rather than Democrat. In Virginia, for example, exit polling in the governor’s race suggests that, if the Libertarian candidate had not been on the ballot, a plurality of his supporters would have voted for the Democrat rather than the Republican (a majority would have not voted altogether). Thus, contrary to my claim, the Libertarian candidate did not take votes away from a Republican.

That point is well taken, but it doesn’t change the fact that, overall, Libertarians usually prefer the Republican candidate to a Democratic one. In fact, a pre-election poll had 10 percent of Republicans but just 2 percent of Democrats saying they supported the Libertarian. So, while I agree that Libertarians can be swing voters, especially when there is no Libertarian candidate on the ballot, on average they swing to the right, not left.

A 2013 national survey conducted by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute illustrates my point. Quite simply, a majority of self-described Libertarians said they preferred Republicans to Democrats.

Prior to that, David Boaz from the libertarian think-tank, the Cato Institute, described similar trends in his research. In two posts, Boaz noted that Libertarians supported George W. Bush over Al Gore by about 3:1, and 59 percent to 38 percent over John Kerry four years later. He thought that Libertarian candidates in 2006 hurt the chances of multiple Republicans running for Congress. Why? Exit polls found Libertarians voted 59-36 for Republican congressional candidates. Had Libertarian candidates not been on the ballots, Republicans stood to capture these votes.

In 2012, little had changed. Boaz pointed to another survey in which Romney had the support of over 75 percent of Libertarians in 2012.

Coming full-circle, these trends exist here in North Carolina. In the Civitas poll I referenced earlier, Haugh has the support of 10 percent of Republicans but just 5 percent of Democrats, the same 2:1 ratio Civitas found one month earlier.

I concede the point that Libertarians are not perfectly reliable voters for Republicans. I also should have been clearer that nationally representative data about Libertarian’s voting does not mean North Carolinian Libertarians vote the same way. Indeed, if social issues become more important than economic ones in North Carolina's U.S. Senate race, there is a good chance that Hagan will pick up a good percentage of the Libertarian vote that defects from supporting Haugh. Both major-party candidates would be wise to woo the Libertarian vote in what portends to be a close election because Haugh is unlikely to maintain his double-digit support in recent polls.


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