Buyer's Remorse for the Tea Party?

Support for the movement has dropped dramatically, according to new data. Some guesses as to why it's happening.

Tea Party rally with signs - Kevin Lamarque Reuters - banner.jpg

Well, well, Tea-Party supporters. Looks like you don't actually like the Tea Party anymore.

At least that's what the Pew Research Center suggested this week, when it found, surprisingly, that poll respondents are souring on both the Tea Party and the Republican Party in congressional districts represented by members of the House Tea Party Caucus. Pay close attention to the findings on the right:

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People in those districts now agree with the Tea Party by far slimmer margins than they did in 2010 -- just 27 percent to 22 percent.

What caused this shift in opinion? What does it mean? It's tough to know for sure, but here are some speculations, some of which overlap, some of which contradict each other, and not all of which I personally endorse:

  • Cutting spending is hard to do. Yes, the Tea Party movement succeeded in steering the policy platform of the Republican Party. But has it succeeded in drastically revising the nation's spending plan? No. Democrats control the White House and the Senate, and entrenched interests fiercely defend their pipelines to federal money. Tough luck. In total, the debt-limit deal promised about $2.2 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years. That sounds like a lot, but the U.S. spent over $26 trillion over the last 10 years, and outlays historically grow year to year. Insofar as Tea-Party supporters had high expectations, those expectations may not have been met.
  • Post-election-year fatigue. In a non-election year, people's political sentiments naturally die down -- meaning something like the Tea Party, which is a movement fueled by sentiments of urgency and outrage, would of course see its support dip after the emotional release of its wildly successful 2010 midterms. The support will be back -- this has more to do with timing.
  • The Tea-Party ethos is not a governing ethos. Yeah, all that rallying felt good in 2010, but you can't actually run a country by waving signs. One can argue that the Tea Party's ultimatum-driven politics have fed the culture of stalemate that now rules Washington. Perhaps that's a messy side-effect of a necessary strategy for anyone who wants to oppose Obama and cut spending; perhaps that messiness has turned the Tea Party's marginal supporters off from its impact on political culture.
  • The Tea Party's mission was not as simple as its leaders made it out to be. Given the strong personalities and sometimes ideological disarray that can be found among crowds of Tea Partiers, the leaders of Tea-Party groups and the hosts of Tea-Party rallies tried to keep things simple: focus on less spending, lower taxes, and small government. Maybe some of those other ideological strains -- social conservatism and libertarianism, for instance -- were more prevalent than advertised, and maybe the success in pushing GOP fiscal policies hasn't been so satisfying.
  • Nobody is happy about anything these days. The economy is terrible. The war in Afghanistan isn't going very well. The weather is getting cold. Ask me if I view something favorably. Anything. The answer is no.
  • The Tea Party necessarily exists at the margins of political culture. The movement doesn't need to be supported by a majority of Americans, or anything close to it. The Tea Party is made up of highly driven activists who support a very specific cause, and, by that nature, it is destined to encompass a public minority. Its function is to steer American policy by pushing it from the side. Falling public support, even in Tea-Party-Caucus districts, signifies a regression to a natural mean. When another election happens, the vocal minority will again exert its outsized influence by demonstrating outsized passion.
  • Some of these guys, sometimes, appear to be clowns. There are some very smart, charismatic people involved in planning things out for the Tea Party movement. Tea Party Express figured out how to win elections. Former House majority leader Dick Armey and his group FreedomWorks developed a good relationship with activists. But look at Rep. Allen West's email to Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schulz and tell me that wasn't bad press. It was the Tea Partiers in the presidential race, after all, who struggled with basic facts about Paul Revere's ride, Libya, and ... what was the third thing? A narrative already existed that the Tea Party is full of lunatics anyway, allowing bad-press moments to fit into a public model of Tea-Party lunacy.
  • The mainstream media has finally succeeded in tearing the Tea Party down. Let's be honest, the MSM has been having a field day with the Tea Party since the day it was born. Even some straight news stories, I suspect, are written with the acknowledgement that there is a market for news about how crazy the Tea Party is. Maybe all that finally sunk in.
  • It's the economy, stupid. Not spending or taxes. The people who previously liked the Tea Party realized that they don't actually care how much the government spends, so much as they care about the unemployment rate.
  • All revolutions are destined for failure. Insofar as the Tea Party is a revolutionary movement, it's subject to this rule. Revolutions seek to overthrow the present order, but when they succeed, they become the present order -- which is antithetical to the spirit and design on which they are founded.
  • The fall of Tea-Party presidential candidates had something to do with it. Mitt Romney has been the lone constant atop the GOP's roster of presidential possibles. All of the other flashes in the pan -- Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain -- rose as Tea Party darlings. The current alternative is Newt Gingrich, who carries less of a distinctly Tea Partyish brand. Perhaps these rises and falls have fatigued the base.
  • These people weren't all that into the Tea Party to begin with. There is a difference between someone who attends Tea Party rallies, subscribes to listservs, attends meetings, and/or belongs to Tea Party organizations -- and someone who tells a pollster he/she views the Tea Party movement favorably. Perhaps it shouldn't be so surprising that some of that support wore off after the election year.

Image credit: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

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Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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