As the GOP approaches the 2016 presidential primaries -- which, we would remind folks, are set to begin in earnest in about three weeks -- the Republican field is about as wide open as it has ever been.
The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll shows Mitt Romney, who is not running (probably?), leading the field, with former Florida governor Jeb Bush in second place. As we've written before, though, the GOP hopefuls are so jumbled that the margin of error renders these kinds of polls pretty meaningless. Throw in Romney's non-candidacy, and they are even less revealing of anything.
But one thing the polls do show right now is quite interesting, and that is that the tea party trails.
Let's grant, for the sake of argument, that the most tea party-friendly candidates in the potential 2016 GOP primary field are Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), along with neurosurgeon Ben Carson. These three, more than the others, appear to be aligned with that movement, even as someone like Paul is far more complex than the "tea party" label.
And despite a reasonably high profile for all three men -- at least among the GOP base -- they take a grand total of 17 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, more establishment-oriented Republicans such as Romney, Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) combine to take 43 percent.
Now, again, these polls don't shed a ton of light this early. And Romney's showing certainly skews things because he's basically the one guy who is extremely well-known.
Even if you exclude him, though, the story is similar: the tea partyers take 22 percent, while the establishment takes 30 percent. (That also excludes people such as Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who combine for 12 percent and are probably more establishment than tea party.)
And if there's one Republican in the field who best embodies the tea party, it's probably Cruz. After polling as high as 20 percent in GOP primary surveys last year, he's at just 3 percent with Romney in the race and 4 percent without him.
This is hardly the first development to suggest a waning influence for the tea party. The movement was unable to upend an incumbent senator for the first time in three elections in the 2014 primaries. Meanwhile, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last week showed that 19 percent of Americans had a favorable view of the tea party -- a new low -- and that 6 percent had a "very positive" view of it. An additional 46 percent of Americans had an unfavorable view of it.
That 19 percent, if you just look at the GOP base, still looks pretty formidable, but it's clear that about half of that base isn't on board with the tea party anymore. And the fact that only 6 percent of Americans feel "very positive" about the movement -- also a new low -- suggests that its true adherents number very few Republicans.
In 2011, as the 2012 GOP primary was getting off the ground, the tea party was in the high-20s rather than the high-teens, with about twice as many having a "very positive" view of it. That represents a significantly bigger share of the GOP primary electorate.
Given the wide-open nature of the 2016 race, it's certainly not out of the question that a tea partier could emerge as the nominee. But as I've argued before, the GOP's willingness to nominate a tea party candidate for a seat in the House or the Senate might be bigger than its willingness to do so for the highest office in the land -- an office for which polls in 2012 regularly showed people wanted someone who could win the general election.
And more and more, it appears the Republican Party is distancing itself from the five-year-old movement that spurred it to huge gains in the 2010 midterm elections.