What the tea party is — and isn’t

September 10, 2011

The tea party movement came into public consciousness sometime in the early months of President Obama’s tenure in the White House. Ever since, it has been an object of fascination, fear, scorn and admiration.

It has also been the object of misunderstanding. The tea party was described as the new kid on the block of American politics, when in fact it was the extension of forces long at work in the political system.

It was described by some of its grass-roots organizers as a movement driven by principle whose members swore no allegiance to either party. That, too, has been shown to be wrong as its roots in the Republican Party have become more evident.

It was given credit for the Republican takeover of the House in November and for the gains the party made in other races in the midterms. There is truth in that, particularly in the movement’s success in nationalizing the election.

But evidence of the tea party’s ability to sway individual House races is far more questionable. A tea party endorsement appears to have had no special impact on a candidate’s success in 2010. (In some high-profile Senate races, tea party support probably cost the Republicans victories.)

Those conclusions are drawn from the work of a number of scholars whose findings were presented at the American Political Science Association’s recent annual conference in Seattle. The papers illuminate a debate about the significance of the tea party’s place in today’s politics while providing a clearer picture of its followers and what they believe.

That the tea party sprang to life during Obama’s presidency should have been less surprising than it was. According to Alan Abramowitz of Emory University, “The tea party movement can best be understood in the context of the long-term growth of partisan-ideological polarization within the American electorate and especially the growing conservatism of the activist base in the Republican Party.”

Over the past three decades, the size of the base within the party has grown significantly. At the same time, those activists were becoming more and more conservative in their views — and more and more hostile in their evaluations of the opposing party. When these activists were asked to rate Democratic presidential candidates on a thermometer scale of 1 to 100, the average fell “from a lukewarm 42 degrees in the late 1960s to a very chilly 26 degrees in the 2000s,” Abramowitz said.

In other words, the Republican base was primed to dislike Obama as president. In fact, it already did before he was ever sworn in. “People attending the tea party events that began early in the Obama administration expressed the same vehement hostility toward Obama first observed at campaign rallies for John McCain and Sarah Palin” in the fall of 2008, writes Gary Jacobson of the University of California at San Diego.

They were also predisposed to oppose his agenda, whether it was his big stimulus package or his health-care proposal. Those measures helped galvanize the group that became known as tea party activists or supporters, but as Jacobson notes, “The tea party movement conferred a label and something of a self-conscious identity to a pre-existing Republican faction that already held strongly conservative views on both economic and social issues.”

Nicol C. Rae of Florida International University sees the tea party as a populist rebellion reacting not just to Obama, but also to “the failure of the Republican Party in power from 2001-2006 when it controlled the White House and both houses of Congress and yet did little to fulfill the conservative political agenda.”

Both Abramowitz and Jacobson drill down into survey research to analyze the demographic and ideological makeup of those Americans who call themselves tea party supporters. That group constitutes about a fifth of the adult population, although active participants in tea party rallies are a much smaller fraction of the population than movement sympathizers. (Abramowitz estimates it at no more than 5 percent of the adult population.)

As many media polls have shown, people who are “white, married, older, less educated, higher income . . . from the South and more religious tend to have more favorable opinions of the tea party movement,” Jacobson writes.

Abramowitz notes that they are also much more conservative than the electorate at large and more conservative than Republicans who are not supporters of the movement. They are also more likely to have engaged in political activity — such as attending a rally, contacting an elected official — beyond simply voting. Almost nine in 10 tea party sympathizers identify with the Republican Party compared with 32 percent of non-supporters.

Both Jacobson and Abramowitz also say that those who support the tea party movement show higher levels of racial resentment than do non-supporters and that they were more likely to say they disliked Obama.

Jacobson credits the tea party with helping to turn the 2010 election into a national referendum on Obama and his policies, and thus mobilizing voters looking to punish the president and the Democrats. “The tea party energized people who were opposed to Barack Obama from the start and who developed intensely negative opinions of him and his agenda that were extended to his Democratic allies in Congress,” he writes.

But having the tea party’s blessing appears to have had little impact on individual candidates in House races, according to a study by Jon R. Bond of Texas A&M University, Richard Fleisher of Fordham University and Nathan Ilderton of the University of Central Florida.

The three analyzed races in which Republican candidates received the endorsement of one or more of several tea party organizations and compared them with contests where tea party groups made no endorsement. “We failed to find any systematic evidence that the tea party was responsible for the Republican success in 2010,” they write.

Instead, they argue that more traditional factors — in this case high unemployment, the Republican tilt of many districts that Democrats were defending, along with candidate experience and performance — were more decisive in the outcome than a tea party stamp of approval.

“The tea party is a significant phenomenon in American politics. . . . Yet for all its success at energizing the Republican base, the tea party did not create the Republican wave of 2010,” they write. “Instead the tea party and the Republican Party took advantage of the short-term national and district-level conditions working in their favor.”

All the scholars see the tea party as a mixed blessing for the Republican Party. They describe the movement as the de facto base of the party and cite its energizing force within the party as having contributed significantly to the turnout advantage that the GOP enjoyed in 2010.

But they underscore the risks of the movement pushing the party and its candidates too far to the right. Rae sees the movement and the GOP establishment as having developed “a complex and tense but increasingly interdependent relationship” and writes that the movement will “certainly leave a legacy on American politics, although it is still unclear exactly what that legacy will be.”

They also look ahead to 2012 and see a movement poised to play an outsize role in the presidential and congressional nominating process. “Tea party supporters are very likely to comprise a disproportionate share, and in many states and congressional districts an outright majority, of voters in Republican primaries,” Abramowitz writes.

None of the scholars expect the tea party to fade soon. What is most obvious from their analysis is that the movement is part of the longer-term trend toward polarized politics and that, as long as Obama is in the White House, it will remain the most potent force inside the Republican Party.

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Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent.
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