The Tea Party Remains Potent

by Benjamin Studebaker

Since the government shutdown, many have been claiming that the Tea Party is a spent force. They point to evidence that the Tea Party is, on a national level, less popular than ever. However, these analyses are making a critical error–the Tea Party has never enjoyed and does not require majority support. All the Tea Party needs to remain effective is a strong base in the districts it controls, and the evidence does not suggest any weakening in support for the Tea Party in these critical regions.

First, let’s have a look at the national polling figures:

At 22% support, the Tea Party movement is just above low it posted in late 2011. Of note is that since mid-2011, the number of declared opponents of the Tea Party has exceeded the number of supporters. Indeed, looking at this data, we would think that the Tea Party would have been much less potent in the 2012 election, when it had a net negative -5 favorable rating, than it was near the 2010 election when Gallup began taking this data and the movement was +2. So how did the 2010 and 2012 elections go, comparatively? Here’s 2010:

2010 Election House Seats Won (Change from ’08) Senate Seats Won (Change from ’08) Governorships Won (Change from ’08) State Legislatures Controlled—Both Houses
Democrats 2010 193 (-63) 51 (-6) 20 (-6) 16
Republicans 2010 242 (+63) 47 (+6) 29 (+6) 25

Here’s 2012:

2012 Election House Seats Won (Change from ‘10) Senate Seats Won (Change from ‘10) Governorships Won (Change from ‘10) State Legislatures Controlled—Both Houses (Change from ’10)
Democrats 2012 201 (+8) 53 (+2) 19 (-1) 18 (+2)
Republicans 2012 234 (-8) 45 (+2) 30 (+1) 26 (+1)

Despite the Tea Party losing 7 points worth of favorability between 2010 and 2012, the republicans were more or less able to achieve status quo antebellum in 2012. They still managed to win more far more house elections than the democrats in 2012, albeit not quite as many more, the senate was more or less unchanged, and the republicans were able to hold and even to slightly consolidate their control over most of the state governments, commanding a majority of both governorships and legislatures for the second straight election cycle, with most of those legislative majorities being much further right than their congressional counterparts.

How has the Tea Party managed to stay on top of things? To understand this, we need to dig a little deeper into things. Let’s look at another poll, this time from the Washington Post:

Their piece, which also comments negatively on falling Tea Party support, nonetheless offers a clue as to how the Tea Party has managed to retain its primacy in much of the country–it has retained a decisive polling advantage among republicans. While the Tea Party is a -33 with the population as a whole, it is a stunning +18 with republican voters. A Pew poll illuminates further:

Here we see that more republicans think the GOP ignores the Tea Party too much rather than too little. Democrats hate the Tea Party, independents are not at all keen on it, but a majority of republicans still prefer the Tea Party to the mainstream republican alternative. The result? Tea Party candidates are devastating in primaries, often able to easily overcome their less extreme counterparts when the entire voting bloc consists of republicans. However, in general elections, the Tea Party can only prevail in deeply red regions in which the number of republicans exceeds the number of democrats and independents combined. While republicans do not necessarily get majority support nationwide, they can get majority support in concentrated areas, specifically red states–hence their control of 26 state legislatures and 30 governorships. The republicans then Gerrymander the congressional districts in these states, making them produce more republican representatives than they otherwise would. There are 4 states whose state legislatures are controlled by republicans but who nonetheless went blue for Barack in 2012. Despite this, those states disproportionately elected republican, often Tea Party affiliated individuals to the House of Representatives:

State Obama Margin of Victory in 2012 (% points) Republican House Seats Won in 2012 Democratic House Seats Won in 2012
Michigan 10 9 5
Ohio 3 11 5
Pennsylvania 5 13 5
Wisconsin 7 5 3

Don’t believe me? Give Slate’s Gerrymandering jigsaw game a whirl. It’s fun.

By Gerrymandering the districts, republican state legislatures ensure that republicans win a majority of the house seats even when the party is slightly weaker nationally or statewide. In these Gerrymandered districts, republicans have decisive majorities over the combined forces of democrats and independents, and that means that hard-right, Tea Party candidates are going to win in those places in disproportionately large numbers.

The Tea Party has never been (and will almost certainly never be) strong enough nationally to take the presidency in a mano-a-mano national fight with a DNC nominee. Republicans know this, and it is for this reason that the GOP dragged its primaries out until it could ensure the selection of a non-Tea Party candidate. Mitt Romney had to fend off Santorum, Perry, Cain, Bachmann, Paul, and Gingrich–hardly the sort of candidates likely to win independent voters in a nationwide race.  The bridgegate scandal is so crippling to the GOP because, without Chris Christie, they have no go-to candidate whom they feel can succeed nationally (maybe Jeb Bush?).

This is not due to any waning of Tea Party influence–indeed, it is, if anything, because of this influence that the republicans are in hot water. Increasingly, more and more of the prominent individuals in the party are products of blood red states with heavy Tea Party influence. In order to win elections in these states and districts and fend off potential challenges from the right, these individuals have to do and say a variety of very extreme things, things that make it difficult for them to build up national support bases. An entire generation of republican politicians has now been bred to win elections in states and districts that are much more right wing than the nation as a whole. But despite these presidential defeats, Gerrymandered districts ensure that these forces that push the party rightward aren’t going anywhere. As a result, it is increasingly likely that the kind of government we have seen in recent years will continue to prevail–a democratic president with a republican house and a senate split down the middle. What effect will that have on our politics? If the last 4 years and 2 sessions of congress are any guide, stalemate and gridlock: