Reading the Tea Leaves for 2012

How will the Tea Party help shape the Republican nomination process?


Monday night’s “Tea Party” debate on CNN showed the extent to which the Tea Party remains an important force in the Republican Party. But despite the continuing relevance of the Tea Party movement to American politics, it still lacks a center or a leader. This presents a challenge for Republican candidates for president who are attempting to be standard bearers for their party while also interpreting and channeling the often unfocused energies of the Tea Party.

The movement helped to define the recent midterm elections as a protest against government spending run amok in a time of economic crisis. While the movement never quite managed to coalesce around a consistent platform, rebellious Tea Party candidates inspired millions of conservatives who wanted to upend a policy process they felt had become unresponsive to their beliefs and values.

The Republican Party establishment, challenged in several important Senate primaries by Tea Party groups, has since struggled to remain in control of the direction of conservative politics.  Although Republican numbers swelled in the House of Representatives and in state houses across the country, the party establishment continues to reap the whirlwind of Tea Party protest. It was not only the policies of elected Democrats that fired the movement, but also the perceived failings of elected Republicans to control spending and apply conservative principles to the management of the economy.

House Speaker John Boehner, for example, struggled to unite his caucus in his battle with the White House over raising the debt ceiling, as many members who had run as Tea Party candidates chose to oppose any new federal debt. The loose coalition of Tea Partiers housed uncomfortably within the Republican caucus still do not present a well developed platform, nor do they easily submit to leadership even within their own ranks. While the movement cannot be denied as a force in conservative politics, because of its scattered and leaderless nature it is difficult to read the tea leaves to see exactly how the Tea Party will shape the battle for the Republican presidential nomination.

While no candidate yet has managed to become the Tea Party nominee, it is telling that every candidate is courting their influence. The difficulty for candidates is in knowing exactly what the Tea Party wants and which organizations that peddle Tea Party influence can actually deliver delegates and votes.

During the midterm elections Tea Party Express and FreedomWorks emerged as two leading organizations within the movement. Tea Party Express, headed by California Republican political consultant Sal Russo, focused on influencing Senate primaries and organizing high-profile rallies across the country headlined by Sarah Palin and other conservative figures. While effective in giving some strategic political direction to Tea Party candidates, Tea Party Express is not a broad-based membership organization focused on mobilization, and is largely a creature of Russo’s consulting firm. It is questionable if they will be able to deliver significant support either nationally or in battleground states. Nonetheless, the group still manages to command the attention of candidates, and it co-sponsored the Tea Party debate with CNN.

FreedomWorks emerged as a uniquely effective Tea Party mobilizer during the Taxpayer March in September 2009, helping to organize an event that brought an estimated half-million protesters to Washington. Despite their relative prowess as Tea Party organizers, FreedomWorks leaders Matt Kibbe and former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey have maintained focus primarily on activist training and protest. Moreover, the group has an antipathy for leadership and formal structure and takes an uncompromising position with elected officials and candidates that do not embrace their principles. FreedomWorks recently pulled out of a nationwide tour organized by Tea Party Express and boycotted a recent appearance of Mitt Romney in New Hampshire over their objections to Romney’s record on healthcare and taxes. Given these factors, FreedomWorks appears to be a questionable ally for potential Republican nominees.

The question of where presidential candidates need to turn for support is a vexing one, especially because the Tea Party frontier is still wide open for exploitation by almost any group with conservative pretensions.

With candidates fearful of offending Tea Partiers or missing an opportunity to exploit opportunities to garner their support, it is proving quite easy to attract top tier candidates to events with meager resources or influence. This was on display at a Labor Day event organized by conservative Sen. Jim DeMint in his home state of South Carolina.

The Palmetto Freedom Forum consisted of a somewhat unlikely trio of panelists testing candidates on questions of conservative orthodoxy. The format and questioning was geared to a conservatism so strident that it likely did more harm than good to all the candidates who submitted themselves to it. In addition to DeMint’s questions about taxation, Rep. Steve King of Iowa asked questions about immigration and Princeton professor Robert George asked some oddly novel questions about Congress interpreting and enforcing the Fourteenth Amendment. The eagerness of all the candidates to quickly assent to the far-right litmus test of this odd assemblage highlighted the pressure on Republican presidential candidates to tack hard to the right in order to attract Tea Party support. Only Mitt Romney attempted to push back on some of the panel’s more extreme questions, whereas Newt Gingrich one-upped Professor George with an unenforceable and unconstitutional oath to remove federal judges he deemed out of touch with mainstream America. While the forum’s ostensible goal was to test candidates on their fidelity to the founding values of America and the Constitution, the consensus reached was one strangely at odds with the Constitution and American political tradition.

While the benefits of Tea Party support for gaining the Republican nomination for president are uncertain, the Palmetto forum demonstrates the danger for candidates: how not to be drawn into a blind alley with a disorganized and disordered conservative movement. Tea Party activists will likely exert a strong influence on Republican primaries and caucuses (think Pat Robertson in 1988), and if the race gets tight, candidates will not be able to afford to ignore or alienate them. However, the eventual nominee may end up losing significant independent support if they are pulled too far to the right.  According to an August CNN poll, a majority of Americans now have an unfavorable opinion of the Tea Party, with favorability slipping 7% since the midterm elections. Democratic strategists are hopeful that the Republican nominee will be easily linked with an increasingly unpopular Tea Party movement.

A possible strategy for candidates dealing with the Tea Party is to stay more aloof from specific groups and spend more time organizing grassroots citizens who are favorable to the goals of the movement.  Since there is little firm organization among Tea Party groups, the ground is fertile for some kind of mobilization of support within campaigns. However, this will prove difficult as the Tea Party movement has steadfastly resisted leadership or direction. Candidates might also put pressure on the Republican National Committee to do more to bring order to the Wild West atmosphere Tea Party protest has inspired in conservatives. Their energy and enthusiasm is something Republicans desperately need to reignite their party, but their continued unruly, uncompromising and often unorganized protest might well shake apart conservative support for the eventual nominee, and help hand President Obama a second term in 2012.

Zachary Courser, the author of two recent scholarly articles on the Tea Party movement, holds a doctorate in Government from the University of Virginia. Send him an e-mail at