Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) walks onto the stage holding a rifle before speaking at the Conservative Political Action Committee annual conference at National Harbor, Md., in March 2014. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

The following is a guest post by political scientist Erin K. Jenne of Central European University. 


The tea party movement has been called out for many things, not least of which is championing positions that would make Barry Goldwater blush. This begs the question: What separates the tea party from Republicans or from the conservative movement at large?

Analysts have conducted surveys of self-identified tea party members to ascertain whether they differ in any important ways from the American voting population at large (or from Republicans), concluding that they are overwhelmingly white, middle-aged to old, slightly more educated and slightly higher income than the median American voter. There are also indications that tea party members have somewhat more negative views of minorities than the median voter. For example, they are more likely on average to associate welfare programs with low-income minorities — believing that government programs that the broad American middle class depends on (Medicare and Social Security) are legitimate but that those they believe minorities disproportionately use (food stamps and Medicaid) are not. These programs, they believe, should be cut because they foster a culture of dependency on the government.

The positions adopted by self-defined tea party candidates may resemble core conservative values, but, in fact, an analysis of the transcripts of Republican Party presidential primary debates in 2008 vs.  2012 suggest that presidential candidates appear to have moved further to the right in the era of the tea party movement.

Juraj Medzihorsky, Levente Littvay and I recently published a piece on the effect of the tea party on the Republican Party since the former’s inception in 2009. Our article, Has the Tea Party Era Radicalized the Republican Party? Evidence from Text Analysis of the 2008 and 2012 Republican Primary Debates, was published in the October 2014 issue of PS: Political Science and Politics.

Using a text analytic technique, we examine the transcripts of statements made by every major presidential candidate in the 2008 and the 2012 pre-Iowa Caucus debates (the pre-Iowa debates were selected to identify the original ideological positions of the candidates, before election period jockeying). In our study, we extracted positions of each of the candidates for the two primary periods on a “latent dimension” (more on this shortly), which is given below.

Figure 1 shows that not only did Republican presidential candidates in the 2012 primary elections stake out positions further to the right than Republican presidential candidates in the 2008 elections, but that those who ran in both elections (Ron Paul and Mitt Romney) adopted positions further to the right in 2012 than they did in 2008!  This strongly suggests that the party has moved further to the right, most likely in response to the rhetoric and political activism on the right embodied by the tea party movement.

Candidate positions. Figure: Medzihorsky, Littvay, and Jenne 2014
Candidate positions.
Figure: Medzihorsky, Littvay and Jenne, 2014

But what is this dimension? Since it is latent to the data and analysis itself, we must examine the speech segments themselves to try to give a common-sense interpretation of it. To do so, we have listed typical statements given by candidates that stand to the left, right and center of this dimension. These statements are given in Table 4 below.

The table below lists six five-sentence representative excerpts spoken by a single candidate in the debates who was positioned to the left (-1), center (0) and right (+1 or +2).  Interpreting the differences in content between these excerpts should give us a sense of what it means to be on one end of this latent dimension vs. the other.

The speech segments to the left of the extracted dimension (-1) represent largely traditional Republican positions on cooperating with Democrats and unions, looking favorably upon using the federal government as an instrument to achieve their policy aims. On the other end of the spectrum (+1 or +2),  displayed speech segments tend to vilify the actions of the federal government, suggesting that the best federal policy is no federal policy at all and that policies should be decided locally on the state, county or municipal level. Based on these differences, we tentatively interpret the extracted dimension as pro- and anti-Washington, with the left-wing representing positions that are close to conservative Republican ideology that still favor a strong federal government and the right-wing representing positions that are broadly hostile to the reach of the federal government.

Table of selected five-sentence sequences spoken by a single candidate in a single debate. Figure/Table: Medzihorsky, Littvay, and Jenne 2014
Table of selected five-sentence sequences spoken by a single candidate in a single debate.
Figure/Table: Medzihorsky, Littvay and Jenne, 2014

This brings us back to the question that originally motivated our study: Does the tea party matter? Our analysis certainly provides no direct evidence of the effect of the tea party, either on public policy or politics. However, it does appear that the climate in which the tea party movement was gestated helped to push candidates further out on a dimension that describes Republican positions toward Washington itself. This indeed appears to have shaped the core positions assumed by the top presidential candidates of the Republican Party, one of the two mainstream parties in U.S. politics. Since one end of the dimension strongly resembles tea party core principles (as given in a number of self-described tea party manifestos), we believe it is reasonable to conclude that the tea party movement has indeed had an impact on American politics (and possibly policy) by pushing the Republican Party to take on positions that are broadly hostile to the federal government.

We think this analysis, while illuminating, might raise more questions than it answers. For instance, why is this happening now (this shift from 2008 to 2012)? Is this ideological shift indicative of a new phenomenon or is it part of a longer secular shift to the right? What effect does this ideological shift have on the party itself, and what does might this mean for the ability of Republicans to govern the federal government?

We believe this indicates a notable trend in which one of the two mainstream American parties openly campaigns for presidential office on messages that are broadly hostile to the U.S. government.  Whether this translates into a reduced capacity (on the part of the GOP) to govern, and what this means for the future of the party and for bipartisan policy-making in Washington, remains to be seen.