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Just before the Libertarian Party of Texas held its state convention, it suggested its fortunes are rising while the two major political parties are on the decline. “The Republican Party lost 1.1 million registered voters since 2008,” the Libertarians said in a June 7 press release. “The Democratic Party lost 1.2 million registered voters in that time period. There is one exception: the Libertarian Party. Over the same time frame, voter registration in the Libertarian Party rose 8 percent.”
Did the major parties bleed voters while the LPT surged?
Significantly, party affiliations based on voter registration records can only be gauged in the 29 states that allow citizens to declare an affiliation when they register. Texas is among 21 states that don’t permit voters to air a preference at registration time.
To back up its claim, the Texas party’s release cites a blog post on smallgovtimes.com. We found that post largely based on research by Michael McDonald, an associate professor of Public and International Affairs at George Mason University. McDonald cites his research in two May posts at Pollster.com.
In his first post, McDonald writes that since the 2008 election, voters registering as Democrats are down by 2.7 percent and voters registering as Republicans have dropped 3.5 percent in those states where voters are allowed to register an affiliation. Voters registering their affiliation with a minor party increased by 2.4 percent, he writes.
Still, McDonald does not see an incipient minor-party revolution afoot. “America is a long way from having a viable multi-party system at the federal level, like we are currently witnessing in the United Kingdom,” he says in his second post. “However, these trends are consistent with the notion that some American voters are willing to express their frustration with the major parties by registering with a minor political party or affiliating with no party. Indeed, the increase in unaffiliated registrations is a long-term phenomenon observed since the 1970s.”
We contacted McDonald in hopes of boring in on Libertarian voter registrations. He told us he did not separately calculate registration for minor parties, but referred us to Richard Winger, a Libertarian himself and the editor of Ballot Access News, a monthly newsletter. A May 26 blog post by Winger says Libertarian registrations in places that allow registration by party are up 8 percent since October 2008 — the figure cited in the release from the Texas Libertarians.
Generally, Winger writes, more “voters are registered Libertarians now than ever before. Between October 2008 and this spring, Libertarian registration rose in 19 of the 23 states that tally Libertarians. It declined in four states, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon, and South Dakota,” a state where the party has not been on the ballot since 2006.
Professor McDonald told us he still doesn’t see Libertarians succeeding at the polls unless, he said, they move en masse to, say, lightly populated Wyoming. “They’re not concentrated enough in one state or district in order to win elections,” he said.
Here’s why: Regardless of cited changes in party affiliation percentage-wise, the raw numbers of voters registering affiliations underscore the dominance of the major parties. As researched by McDonald, some 43.3 million voters now line up as Democrats, while 29.9 million align as Republicans. Meanwhile, 2.2 million voters are registered as members of minor parties. As of May, according to Winger’s research, more than 259,000 voters had registered affiliations with the Libertarian Party.
Even if we assume that some of nearly 23.6 million unaffiliated voters in states where voters can register their affiliations end up supporting Libertarians at the polls, their numerical share of the electorate is swamped by either of the major parties.
In elections, numbers are everything. That brings us to a statistical problem with the Libertarian’s statement: it compares a reduction in numbers (how many voters fell off the Democratic and Republican rolls) with an increase in a percentage (the share of voters affiliated with the Libertarian party).
Patrick Dixon of Lago Vista, chairman of the Libertarian Party of Texas, told us that’s how the information was presented on the cited online sources. “Maybe I was a little lazy there,” Dixon said. Regardless, he said, the trend is that “our party is growing and theirs are shrinking or growing flat.”
In fact, McDonald’s breakdown, shown on a chart in his first May blog post, tracks registrations both by raw numbers and percentages for the two major parties and all minor parties lumped together.
Upshot: Based on voter registrations in 29 states that allow voters to declare their party affiliation, the statistics cited by the Libertarian Party are correct.
But comparing raw numbers and percentages to make a point, as the Libertarians do, can leave a distorted impression: that the major parties are fading away as the Libertarians gallop ahead. Voter for voter, that’s at least an incomplete characterization.
We rate the statement Half True.
Ballot Access News, “Libertarian Party National Registration Up 8% Since 2008; All Other Nationally-Organized Parties Decline,” May 26, 2010 (accessed June 15, 2010); and issue of June 10, 2010
Interview, Michael McDonald, associate professor, Department of Public and International Affairs, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia June 15, 2010
Pollster.com, blog posts, “Voter Registration Trends, May 2010,” May 10, 2010, and “Multi-Partyism in American Politics,” May 13, 2010 (accessed June 15, 2010)
SmallGovTimes.com, blog post, “Libertarian Party registration up 11% since 2008,” May 27, 2010 (accessed June 15, 2010)
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