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Should Republicans Still Fear the Tea Party?

Does a grassroots political movement that is still relatively young have the power to keep someone out of the White House?
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Tea Party protesters on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol and the National Mall at the Taxpayer March on Washington on September 12, 2009. (PHOTO: NYYANKEES51/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Tea Party protesters on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol and the National Mall at the Taxpayer March on Washington on September 12, 2009. (PHOTO: NYYANKEES51/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Last week, Kevin Drum argued that Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has no chance of becoming his party's 2016 presidential nominee because he has angered the Tea Party over immigration reform. That's enough to end his presidential aspirations, says Drum, since the Tea Party makes up about half of the Republican Party's base.

Is that figure right? Steven Greene breaks down the newest data from the 2012 American National Election Study and finds that, in fact, almost exactly half of Republicans who reported voting in the 2012 primaries and caucuses (a reasonable proxy for "the base") claim to be Tea Party supporters. (Notably, people who didn't vote in the primaries were overwhelmingly not Tea Party supporters.)

But it's not just about numbers. As Greene notes, even among their fellow primary voters, Tea Party supporters are far more active politically—they're more likely to attend rallies, donate to candidates, sign petitions, etc., even controlling for ideology, income, education, gender, and other demographic factors. In other words, these are people you want on your side if you're trying to win the GOP nomination. And if you've managed to alienate them, yes, you face a much harder road.

The Tea Party's agenda today can probably be described as "Republican, only more so."

Now, these data come from 2012. Given that the Tea Party didn't even exist four years before that, it's hard to project what they'll look like three years from now. It's also still pretty hard to say just what the Tea Party is, or was. My impression back in 2009 was that this was a legitimate grassroots political movement (albeit one being promoted by CNBC and Fox News) that was somewhat distinct from the Republican Party. As with many grassroots movements, it was hard to know just who was in charge or what it stood for at any given time. Did it want to form a new organization to challenge and replace a decaying Republican Party? Did it want to reform the Republican Party from within, making it more conservative? Did it represent people who were new to politics, or was it a cynical rebranding of an established faction? Depending on whom you were talking to, they answer could be yes to all of these.

Nonetheless, several years into its existence, it's possible to generalize a bit about the Tea Party movement. While nearly all its members were Republicans, it seemed to have a populist, anti-corporate agenda that wasn't necessarily in line with the goals of GOP officeholders. Yet while its tone was uncompromising, it was willing to be pragmatic in some elections, even enthusiastically backing the very moderate Scott Brown for a chance to take a Senate seat in Massachusetts.

In 2010, however, the Tea Party managed to elect many new members to the U.S. House of Representatives (mainly in the South) as Republicans took over leadership of the chamber. Since then, it's been more challenging to distinguish the Tea Party's agenda from that of the rest of the Republican Party, arguably because the rest of the GOP has moved toward the Tea Party.

Today, we can conclude a few things about the Tea Party:

1. It was never a serious third-party movement (although it did back alternative candidates to Republicans in a handful of races, as profiled in this wonderful This American Life essay).

2. It was and remains a large and potent wing of the Republican Party, both among its active voters and among its officeholders.

3. Its agenda today can probably be described as "Republican, only more so." That is, its adherents believe in roughly the same agenda the rest of the party believes in, but they are much less prone to compromise and much more willing to resort to non-traditional political means (shutdowns, debt ceiling votes, etc.) to achieve it.

So can a candidate who angered the Tea Party win the 2016 GOP nomination? Chances are, anyone with a vaguely credible political record will have done something that makes the Tea Party mad at some point in his or her career, so it's possible that Rubio's immigration apostasy won't appear so bad compared to the other choices out there. But it may mean that candidates like Rubio will have to go out of their way to demonstrate fealty to the group on other issues. That may help with the Tea Party, but it will likely hurt with the general electorate in 2016.