Tea Party Still Running Strong

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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An excellent article today from Jaime Fuller about the not-dead-yet Tea Party. Fuller looks at the polls, and finds that Tea Party support has fully recovered from post-shutdown lows:

"[T]he Republican approval numbers are the important ones to watch for the upcoming 2014 midterms, especially when you narrow down the polling to the gung-ho party members most likely to vote during primary season: conservative Republicans. Among the most loyal Republicans, support for the tea party is at 74 percent, hardly changed from a post-shutdown high of 77 percent and about where support was in mid-2013 (73 percent). Tea party Republicans also report being more active in party primary contests than others. A Pew Research poll from July 2013 found that while only 37 percent of Republicans and Republican leaning independents agree with the Tea Party, 49 percent of those who always vote in primaries do. For a political group with one foot in the grave, they seem to have as much of a chance of besting moderate Republicans in primary season as they did in 2010 and 2014."

What these numbers don't tell us is exactly what differentiates "Tea Party" Republicans from other Republicans. To some extent, it's probably just what conservatives like to call themselves these days. But still, the fact that they're self-consciously "Tea Party" may have real consequences, especially if it makes them more likely to vote against perceived "establishment" candidates in primaries.

Fuller, indeed, points out correctly that one central question is whether Tea Partyers will help nominate another set of terrible candidates (such as U.S. Senate candidates Richard Mourdock and Christine O'Donnell) who will lose races that better candidates might easily have won.

Trouble is, choosing terrible candidates is, to a large extent, built into the self-conception of Tea Party Republicans; it's not really something they can unlearn. That's because the actual policy line separating "establishment" candidates from whatever the Tea Partyers think of themselves is nebulous. The criterion used to differentiate Tea Partyers from "establishment" candidates is often comes down to whether a candidate has conventional credentials for the office she's seeking. In practical terms, that takes the form of a heavy bias against any candidate who knows what she's doing. This doesn't mean that Tea Party candidates always lose (witness Senators Ted Cruz and Ron Johnson), or even that they necessarily make poor office-holders if they win. But it does make them risky bets.

On the other hand, it's possible that over time "Tea Party" will just wind up being a synonym for "very conservative," losing its (self-consciously) insurgent baggage along the way.

At any rate: nice catch!

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

(Jonathan Bernstein covers U.S. politics for Bloomberg View. He is co-editor of "The Making of the Presidential Candidates 2012." Follow him on Twitter at @JBPlainblog.)

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Frank Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net