In the 2008 and 2012 elections, GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul emerged as the grassroots hero for libertarian ideas. He was wildly popular online, winning nearly every poll that had his name thanks to rabid youth support, and set daily fundraising records in the form of “money bombs.” Liberals embraced him as the one sane Republican for his non-interventionist foreign policy and staunch defense of civil liberties and while Republicans liked his views on limited government, he was routinely asked why he was running in their party.
Despite the enthusiasm of his supporters, Paul only received 5% of the primary votes in 2008. His criticism of the Iraq War and the growth of surveillance that made him popular in some circles, ultimately proved too much for many Republicans to swallow while Bush was still in office. But then something happened – the global financial system imploded. The bank bailouts, auto bailouts, and stimulus packages that followed resulted in backlash from the right and the left in the forms of The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. With the Democrats controlling the White House and at least one chamber of Congress, the right also became much more distrustful and resentful of government in general. While conservatives praised strong government under Bush, they took a particularly virulent anti-government stance under Obama. The number of state militias drastically increased, the Tea Party was branded as a libertarian movement, and Republican talking heads called the movement the future of the party.
That showed in the 2012 election. While Paul again did not win, he picked up 11% of the vote, doubling his previous performance and setting the stage for his son, Rand, in 2016. Rand took the libertarian standard from his father and made some strong early showings, railing against the country’s targeted assassination program, surveillance authority, and reliance on drones. These gestures put him at the top of polls for the GOP nomination in 2013 and 2014.
It didn’t last. When Rand dropped out of the race in February 2016, he was polling near 3%. How was it that the son of the libertarian stalwart of the past two elections not only didn’t build on his father’s momentum, but polled far below him?
There are a few explanations that might work here. First is that there were simply more GOP candidates (17 at one point) so Paul’s vote share was naturally diluted. Second, Rand Paul ran away from earlier libertarian stances in hopes that his campaign might appeal to a broader base, costing him his core supporters. Third, Ron Paul supporters also liked Tea Party darling Ted Cruz splitting his support between the two and even debating which of them should inherit Ron Paul’s support.
Each of these explanations can account for some lost support that ultimately ended his 2016 bid, but they can also all be explained by one other theory – there were no libertarians. Ron Paul’s supporters were not libertarians, there was no libertarian movement within the GOP, the Tea Party was not libertarian, and there are no libertarians voting in the GOP primaries this election. Continue reading “There Was No Libertarian Movement”