Assessing the Tea Party movement’s short-term political impact

Charles Krauthammer argues that the Tea Party movement has “created the enthusiasm gap” that is propelling Republicans towards “the sweeping victory that awaits them on Nov. 2.” In my view, though, it does not require the Tea Party movement to explain the enthusiasm gap. We saw such a gap, along with sweeping victories, in 1994 and 2006-08. Enthusiasm gaps appear when events disgust one set of partisans and demoralize the other set. The same events usually push independents en masse towards the party whose partisans are disgusted. That push, together with (and probaly more decisively than) the enthusiasm gap, produces an electoral rout.
The rout (and these days even the anticipation of it) produces heroes. In 1994, the hero was Newt Gingrich and the Contract With America. In 2006-08, according to some, it was the “netroots.” This time, it’s the Tea Party movement.
But the evidence that the heroes made a major difference always strikes me as weak. That’s particularly true this year, when the economy is in far worse shape than in previous recent wave elections.
Krauthammer argues that the Tea Party movement has made a distinctive contribution this year by eschewing third party politics that would have drained the Republican party of its most mobilized supporters. This is a substantial argument. But large-scale third-party politics are difficult to execute in congressional elections and, to my knowledge, they are unprecedented in modern non-presidential election years. Indeed, even when Perot ran for president in 1992, I don’t recall a corresponding set of third-party candidates making significant runs for Congress.
It could have happened this year, though, for two reasons. First, as noted, economic conditions are much worse than before. Second, Republican unhappiness with Republicans far exceeds such unhappiness in 1994, as well as Democratic unhappiness with Democrats in 2006-08.
For what it’s worth, my sense is that, in the absence of a Tea Party movement operating within the Republican party, meaningful third-party Senate candidates probably would have emerged only in a few states — Delaware almost certainly; Alaska quite possibly. And, although such third-party candidates might have swung an election or two towards the Democrats, so too might the nomination of one or two of the Republican Tea Party movement candidates.
This leads me to the one thing that seems demonstrable about the Tea Party movement’s role this year — it has been decisive in determining the outcome of several primaries. This occurred because, even in wave election years, primary turnout typically is fairly low. Thus, it doesn’t always take a large number of votes to swing the election.
We won’t know whether the Tea Party’s influence on the outcomes of primaries was salutary until we see how the Tea Party backed nominees fare in November (my guess is that all except O’Donnell will win, though Sharron Angle might not) and how those who are elected perform in office.
Stay tuned.

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