We may not be attributing Newt Gingrich’s rise to the tea party. But maybe we should.
Even as the movement’s influence in the GOP appears to have waned over the past year, there remains one major remnant of what happened in 2010: anti-establishment fervor.
The tea party spurred momentum and turnout for the GOP two years ago, but it also caused it some headaches in the primaries, turning aside candidates who were clearly favored by the party establishment in favor of conservative wild cards that went on to mixed results in November.
That very same anti-establishment mentality has spurred any number of anti-Mitt Romney candidates to frontrunner status in the 2012 GOP presidential race. And when it finally looked like Romney was the presumptive nominee before South Carolina, the base recoiled in much the same way it did in a series of 2010 Senate races, delivering a huge win for Gingrich.
And in doing so, the tea party movement served notice that it’s still very much alive, albeit not as cohesive or well-branded.
In recent days, some smart political analysts have begun to question the theory that the major party elites have overwhelming influence when it comes to picking their nominees.
Cohen’s theory states that, while candidates and voter preferences matter, nominees are almost always chosen in a sort of long-running negotiation among party elites, who effectively pave the way for voters to make the most logical choice and/or pick the most electable candidate. In other words, voters have a choice, but it’s heavily influenced by party bigwigs.
That theory, according to some, simply doesn’t apply to the 2012 GOP presidential race.
“The competing paradigm might be called ‘This Time Is Different,’” Silver writes. “Under this interpretation, elite support and the ground game do not matter as much as usual. Instead, success is more idiosyncratic: personalities matter a lot, and nominations are determined based primarily on momentum and news media coverage.”
This makes a lot of sense — particularly when it comes to Gingrich — but there seems to be more to it.
Namely, the tea party.
After all, exit polls from Saturday’s South Carolina primary showed 64 percent of voters identified as tea party supporters, and Gingrich won nearly half of their votes — almost twice as many as Romney. Indeed, the fact that nearly two-thirds of voters in any primary say they support a certain political movement shows what kind of influence it has.
But even if you look beyond the exit poll, it’s pretty clear that the tea party mentality is very much a part of what Gingrich has been able to accomplish. The same tea party mentality that was responsible for Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell, Ken Buck, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul is now helping Gingrich.
In most of those cases, there was another GOP candidate who was favored by the GOP establishment but didn’t light any fires among the conservative base. So the base chose somebody else.
That’s not to say that Gingrich hasn’t been a capable candidate who was able to swing a state by 25 points in a week’s time. In fact, it’s just saying that his stealth maneuvering has more impact today, because voters are acting more independently of party leaders.
For some reason, political observers have stopped attributing this to the tea party. But it’s very much a lingering effect of what the tea party did in 2010 or, at the very least, is a result of the same set of circumstances that gave rise to the tea party.
The question now is whether it’s enough, as it was in 2010 Senate races, to push a supposedly less-electable wild card candidate to a major party’s presidential nomination.
As we have written before, that is a much steeper hill to climb, and we remain skeptical that the tea party will actually pick the GOP nominee.
But the influence of the tea party lives on in today’s Republican Party.