If only it were this easy to capture voters.

Photographer: Pau Barrena/Bloomberg

Catch of the Day: Lonely Libertarians

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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A Catch to Nate Silver, who notes that while there are very few libertarians among U.S. voters -- which is part of what dooms the presidential hopes of Rand Paul -- there are plenty of people who appear to have libertarian views on multiple issues.

Only 1 in 9 voters call themselves “libertarian,” but 22 percent of them support the libertarian combination of favoring marriage equality and opposing government action to attack income inequality.

One caveat about describing those views as libertarian: The political-science conventional wisdom is that for many voters, attitudes are “unattached,” meaning that knowing someone’s position on one issue won’t predict his or her position on others. If that’s true, then many people among the 22 percent Silver found were libertarian based on the two issues probably don’t have libertarian views on other things.   

When political scientist John Sides looked at survey data a while back, he found that only 20 percent of National Election Studies respondents wanted government to provide “fewer services.” So combine that (as Silver does) with the marriage question, and the group favoring both "fewer services" and same-sex marriage will be much small than Silver suggested (since many of that small-government 20 percent are also opponents of marriage equality).

Silver is good on how parties function in the system:

Why should views on (for example) gay marriage, taxation, and U.S. policy toward Iran have much of anything to do with one another? The answer is that it suits the Democratic Party and Republican Party’s mutual best interest to articulate clear and opposing positions on these issues and to present their platforms as being intellectually coherent.

Political scientist Hans Noel goes further. He argues that parties have, in a sense, been captured by ideologues who have persuaded those who pay close attention to politics to adopt “conservative” or “liberal” ideologies.

All of this suggests that looking for ideologies among voters is sort of pointless. People have impulses on various issues, but it is the parties that organize those impulses into something resembling overall world views. The parties do this by teaching their adherents which positions they should take on all those subjects the rank-and-file voter doesn’t care about much.

Even the idea that most of us start with “positions” on issues is too strong. That’s the takeaway from Sarah Kliff’s exploration of public opinion on abortion. Once she talked to respondents in depth, it turned out their views don’t fit comfortably into the positions that interest groups and the parties have arranged the debate around. But many of those same people will answer polling questions as if their positions did fit into that structure.

So Silver is correct that parties shape ideology, and even that parties structure positions on issues. To get back to his point: There are probably far more than enough people who agree with Rand Paul (or Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders) on enough issues that any of them could win a national election. But Paul can’t get nominated because the Republican Party disagrees too strongly with him on too many policies.

Nice catch!

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net