Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, is often described as both a tea party member and a libertarian, but it turns out that most libertarians aren’t tea partyers.
In a surprising finding from one of the most sweeping surveys on the attitudes and beliefs of America’s libertarians, a majority of libertarians — 61 percent — said they did not consider themselves part of the tea party movement, according to the annual American Values Survey released Tuesday by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute.
“This new research reveals a libertarian constituency in America that is distinct both from the tea party and from the Christian right,” said Robert P. Jones, CEO of the institute. “While conventional wisdom has assumed that the tea party movement is fueled by libertarian convictions, most libertarians see themselves as outside of the tea party movement.”
Libertarians, it turns out, are principled but not always easy to pigeonhole: A majority of libertarians support legal marijuana but not gay marriage, they would allow doctor-assisted suicide but wouldn’t raise the minimum wage, and they really, really, really don’t like Obamacare. There also are signs that libertarians are likely to take up a bigger slice of the American political spectrum.
Mr. Jones said the survey this year represents the first time the institute has asked about libertarians, and the timing is spot-on. In some polls ahead of Virginia’s gubernatorial election Tuesday, Libertarian Party candidate Robert Sarvis is supported by a hefty 10 percent of voters, cutting into the base of Republican candidate Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II.
“I think we have a lot of growing interest in and activism among libertarians, but not a lot of data,” Mr. Jones said.
The difference between libertarians and tea partyers appears to boil down to attitudes about religion. Libertarians are about half as likely to see themselves as part of the Christian right movement as those who identify with the tea party, the survey found.
Libertarians represent about 7 percent of the Republican Party, less than the 20 percent of self-identified Republicans who consider themselves part of the tea party and barely a fifth of the 33 percent who identify with the religious right.
The survey found that the typical libertarian looks a lot like Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. Nearly 94 percent of libertarians are white, two-thirds are male and 62 percent are younger than 50.
Where libertarians and tea party members agree is economic policy, including support of limited government and lower taxes and opposition of the Affordable Care Act and additional environmental regulations. The survey, in fact, found that an overwhelming 96 percent of the libertarians polled have an unfavorable view of President Obama’s national health care law.
Where they disagree is social policy. As their name suggests, libertarians aren’t thrilled with government intervention on issues such as abortion, euthanasia and marijuana legalization. Nearly six in 10 libertarians oppose making access to abortions more difficult, while seven in 10 favor allowing doctors to help terminally ill patients end their lives.
Among libertarians, 71 percent support legalizing marijuana, putting them at odds with a majority of Republicans. About 61 percent of Republicans, 59 percent of tea party members and 69 percent of white evangelical Protestants oppose legalizing marijuana.
Even so, libertarians are far more likely to be Republicans than Democrats. Nearly half — 45 percent — of libertarians identify as Republicans, and 5 percent call themselves Democrats. Another 8 percent are aligned with — surprise — the Libertarian Party, while 35 percent consider themselves politically independent.
About 40 percent of libertarians have negative views of the Republican Party, and 89 percent have unfavorable opinions of Democrats. A majority — 57 percent — hold favorable views of the Republican Party.
Given their Republican tilt, “there are opportunities for libertarians to play a bigger role in primaries,” Mr. Jones told the Religion News Service.
Libertarians who lean toward the GOP also differ from their fellow Republicans on early preferences for the 2016 presidential field. In head-to-head questioning, Mr. Paul was the top choice among libertarians with 26 percent, followed by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas with 18 percent, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida with 16 percent and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin with 13 percent.
There was a sharp divide over New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie: He placed fifth among libertarians with 10 percent support but first among voters who trend Republican with 18 percent, tied with Mr. Ryan.
Meanwhile, Mr. Paul, like his father a libertarian favorite, came in fifth among overall Republican voters with 11 percent support.
Those who considered themselves tea party Republicans favored Mr. Cruz with 22 percent, followed by Mr. Rubio with 18 percent, Mr. Ryan with 14 percent and Mr. Paul with 13 percent.
The survey, conducted from Sept. 21 to Oct. 3, was drawn from a random sample of 2,317 adults 18 and older. The margin of error was 2.5 percentage points.