Is It Tea Time In America?

For local readers, I’ll be at 51 Main tomorrow (Tuesday) night beginning at 7 p.m.  to give my latest version of my midterm election talk.  Although those who have attended previous talks dating back to August know my prediction regarding which party will control the House and Senate, I’m going to set the over-under seat projections for both chambers, and open up the voting to you.  As always, an “It’s the Fundamentals,  Stupid” t-shirt will be on the  line.

One issue I hope to address is the likely impact of the Tea Party movement on the midterm voting. Long-time readers know that for some time I have been arguing that this is a genuine conservative grass roots phenomenon that has the chance to significantly influence the outcome of the midterm elections. This view, to say the least, was not initially shared by most pundits, particularly those on the Left. They tended to disparage the Tea Party as an overhyped media-generated phenomenon, whose members were mostly racist kooks occupying the extreme rightwing fringe of American politics.

Thus, in April, 2009, Paul Krugman dismissed the movement as anything but a “spontaneous outpouring of public sentiment. They’re AstroTurf (fake grass roots) events, manufactured by the usual suspects” – that is, wealthy conservatives.

Similarly, E.J. Dionne, in this most recent article characterizes the Tea Party as a group of latter-day John Birchers that encompass perhaps the most extreme 10-15% of the electorate – a claim he has made before. Echoing Krugman, he also argued in an earlier column that the Tea Party was overhyped by the media and was fueled, at least in part, by racial animosity and bankrolled by billionaire conservatives.  Dionne concluded that it would have little impact on the midterm elections. Frank Rich, meanwhile, warned of the dangerous consequences (armed militias anyone?) should Republicans actually encourage this movement.  .

By now I hope I’ve persuaded you that these critics were evaluating the movement with their partisan hearts, not their minds. While they sought to dismiss the movement, the polling data and the electoral results to date paint a different picture, one that in my view supports my initial contention from a year ago that the movement would be an influential political force during this election cycle.

My view finds additional support in a just published Washington Post survey of the Tea Party movement. The highlights are as follows:

  1. The movement is a genuine grassroots phenomenon, built from the bottom up and not, as Krugman and Dionne argue, from the top down. Forty-two percent of the 600-plus chapters the Post contacted say they have no connection with any national organization. Thirty-two percent say they work mainly with the Tea Party Patriots, a national umbrella organization.  Less than 3% have contacts with the Republican Party. Almost 90% say their activities and strategies are entirely or predominantly local. In short, the movement is decentralized with chapters  spread across the nation and very small in size (more than half had less than 50 people at their last meeting). They meet in living rooms and coffee shops, not boardrooms.
  2. The movement lacks funding, and what money they have raised is almost entirely due to grass roots activity. On average, chapters raised less than $1,000 this year, and 95% of that came from individuals at the local level.
  3. Members lack political experience (over 80% said most of their members are new to politics).  Nor do they have any central leadership.  Indeed, they can’t agree on any single person who serves as the face of the Tea Party movement. (Palin comes the closest, with about 14% of those surveyed indicating that she best represents the movement.)
  4. The movement is conservative, but not – at least in professed allegiance – partisan. Members express no interest in forming a third party.  At the same time they are almost equally opposed to the Republican Party establishment as they are to the Democratic leadership. Less than 1% say their most important goal is electing Republicans to office.  Similarly, less than 1% cite countering Obama/the Democrats as the most important issue. Instead they would prefer to throw out incumbents from both parties.  Indeed, this has been perhaps their biggest impact during the current electoral cycle – in several high profile races they have succeeded in replacing the Republican establishment candidate with one backed by the Tea Party. Nonetheless, given a choice between a Republican or a Democrat in the general election, I think in most instances most Tea Partiers will support the Republican candidate.  Of those who say their chapter is involved in campaigning, 42% say they are working on behalf of Republicans, 32% say either party, and 22% say neither of the two major parties. But more than 80% of those campaigning for Republicans say they only campaign for Republicans who share their issues.
  5. The movement is predominantly focused on a single issue: reversing the trend toward “big government” as embodied in the size of the federal budget and the growth in the deficit.  Some 44% of respondents list some version of this issue as their primary concern. The next highest issue is protecting the Constitution, cited by only 11%. Ninety-nine percent say the economy is the most important factor explaining Tea Party support so far.
  6. The movement cares almost nothing about cultural issues.  One percent or less cite immigration, 10th amendment/states rights, gay marriage, abortion, or gun rights as the most important issue.

The Post story, combined with other polling data I have presented in several discussions on this topic, reinforce the basic picture I’ve painted before: the Tea Party movement is not a media-created, “astro-turf” movement – it is instead a grass-roots development rooted in the response to the government’s handling of the fiscal meltdown, the passage of the stimulus bill and health care, and a growing budget deficit, against the backdrop of  economic recession. But we shouldn’t over state the strength of the movement either.  It does not attract anything close to majority support within the electorate. Based on previous polling data, I estimate that only about 3% of voters have attended a Tea Party event. Perhaps 15%-25% of voters consider themselves aligned with, or supporters of, or approving the Tea Party movement (the number varies depending on question wording.) This compares, for example, to about 35% of adults who call themselves Democrats (combined strong or weak) and about 26% who say they are Republicans (based on the 2008 National Election data).  Of course, there is overlap between Tea Party and  partisan affiliation.

However, the potential impact of the movement belies its minority status.  First, by becoming actively involved in the nominating process, the Tea Party has already influenced the list of candidates from which voters must choose in the general election. And contrary to conventional wisdom, there is data indicating that although the Tea Party may consist of political amateurs, the candidates running under the Tea Party label are not as inexperienced as the media coverage suggests. Moreover, in low-turnout elections like the midterms, Tea Partiers are likely to be a larger proportion of the electorate than their minority status might suggest. Krugman et al can continue to whistle in the graveyard in the hope that the Tea Party movement is a media-created illusion.  But the facts to this point suggest otherwise.

Is it Tea Time in America?   Or is this simply a Tempest in a Tea Pot?  We’ll know in a week.


  1. Fascinating. That’s unexpected — I think. How does this compare with other get-out-the-vote organizations? Are they predominantly local too?

    I’m having trouble finding it, but there was an earlier Tea Party poll (Quinnipac? WaPo? ABC?) that showed that something overwhelming like 80+% of the respondents got their news from Fox. That suggested to me — and I know you’re skeptical of this, Matt — that there’s still a “mass mobilization” dimension of this movement, even without direct ties or two-way coordination.

    How do you assess the importance of mass media here?

  2. Martin – Without seeing the data, I don’t want to discount your argument that there may be, in effect, a type of top-down leadership exercised indirectly via Fox News. As you note, I’m skeptical of arguments in general that emphasize strong media effects on public opinion, but as you also probably know I don’t get the cable, so I am only intermittently exposed to Fox, or MSNBC, or the other cable outlets. It wouldn’t surprise me if a large portion of Tea Partiers listened to Fox (it is the most watched cable news), just as a disproportionate number of liberals may prefer MSNBC. Whether that means these outlets can shape viewers’ attitudes, however, is a more difficult argument to make. Let me see if I can track down the data you cite.

  3. Found the poll. It was the April 2010 NYT/CBS poll — the first one taken of self-described Tea Party supporters. Not as dramatic as I remembered (confirmation bias), but still notable.

    Link to the PDF of the poll:

    95. Which one of the following television networks do you watch most for information
    about politics and current events — ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, FOX News Channel, MSNBC, or don’t
    you watch television news?

    [General public versus Tea Party]

    4/5-12/10 4/5-12/10 TP
    ABC, CBS, NBC 26 11
    Fox News Channel 23 63

  4. Thanks for this. Again, the key question is the direction of causality – is Fox influencing the Tea Party, or do Tea Partiers watch Fox because they agree with its perspective on the news. My guess is it’s the latter – Fox isn’t persuading any Tea Partier to adopt a perspective that they don’t already prefer.

  5. Well, just to press this a bit on the arrow of causality: Consider again the earlier Washington Post article on Glenn Beck’s call to action to donate online to the Chamber of Commerce that crashed the COC servers. The directionality is both ways. There’s self-selection in terms of viewership, but the media has agency too, via figures like Beck and others, who on a daily basis feed the base explicit instructions on how to mobilize. It may seem out of the “mainstream” for American journalism, but that’s Fox’s complaint against the “mainstream media” to begin with — too complacent. It’s Fox’s self-espoused mission in the political sphere, and it’s of course here to stay.

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