Observers of the right often classify the Tea Party as an essentially libertarian strain of conservatism. Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, for example, recently described Tea Partiers to me as part of the GOP's anti-establishment "libertarian wing"; Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who calls himself a libertarian Republican, has written two books claiming the Tea Party mantle.
A new report, however, finds the link between libertarians and the Tea Party is weak at best. In fact, according to an in-depth survey by the Public Religion Research Institute released Tuesday, most libertarians don’t identify as Tea Party adherents, and less than half consider themselves Republicans. Among Republicans, meanwhile, those who are libertarians tend to have views and priorities distinct from many of their fellow GOPers.
These distinctions are likely to come to the fore when the Republican Party sets about choosing its 2016 standard-bearer. Libertarians, the report finds, want Paul as their nominee; Tea Partiers want Texas Senator Ted Cruz; and white evangelical Protestants narrowly prefer Representative Paul Ryan. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie may have an opening as a sort of Goldilocks candidate: Among Republicans overall, he's tied for first with Ryan, even though he's not favored by any major subgroup. The 2016 Republican primaries could play out as a proxy struggle of the sometimes warring philosophical strains of the GOP as their preferred candidates vie for supremacy.
Libertarians, the survey found, are overwhelmingly white (94 percent), predominantly male (68 percent), and mostly young (62 percent were under 50). While they were quite unlikely to call themselves Democrats (5 percent) or liberals (3 percent), they weren't all conservative Republicans: 57 percent called themselves conservatives, and fewer than half, 45 percent, affiliated themselves with the GOP. Just 39 percent of libertarians self-identified as members of the Tea Party movement. This handy graphic summarizes the overlap: