Against the backdrop of Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin's article dismissing the significance of the Tea Party, here's my pet theory about the the way the movement evolved. First there was the anger: inchoate, uncrystallized, unfocused, broadly directed at concentrated power and at President Obama's attempts to revivify government as a force for progress. Then came the Tea Party itself -- an appropriation of that anger by peripheral Republican Party forces -- "grassroots" corporate-and-rich-donor-founded anti-government groups like FreedomWorks and enterprising political consulting shops like Russo Marsh + Rogers. They helped create the vessels for this anger to focus, and, oh by the way, ensure that it was channeled into the feedback loop that was hamstringing Democrats in Congress. Over the past several months, the movement has been re-appropriated by fringe elements of the reactionary right -- the Joseph Farahs of the world. This fringe, by the way, is quite large, and is growing larger -- up to 30 percent of Americans now believe that government today is threatening to curtail their personal freedoms.
These folks had been attracted to rallies, but now they seem to define for the average scribbler what the movement is about. Amidst all this, the energy waves generated by the movement have turned an undifferentiated mass into a fairly differentiated core: Tea Partiers are likely to vote Republican, but they tend to be as conservative as the average Republican, and certainly more conservative than truly swing independents ever are, were, or will be.
We don't know YET whether the Tea Party Movement can turn itself into a modern political movement, or whether it will simply be a large splotch of quicksand that traps anyone who tries to engage with it. Republicans are wondering this too -- wondering whether the Tea Party energy will cost them Senate seats, or whether it will help them win House seats.
Political scientist John Sides passes along data from the 2008 National Election Study, where respondents are asked to pinpoint themselves on a scale of 0 to 10, with 5 being "moderate." Here are the results:
Strong Democrat: .36
Weak Democrat .40
Independent leaning Democrat: .40
Independent leaning independent: .52
Independent leaning Rep .74
Weak Republican .68
Strong Republican .79
Spot the difference between where Democratic leaning independents and Republican leaning independents lie on the scale from 0 to 1.
This exact insight leads Republican strategists to the belief that base turnout is more important than appealing to the center, and it brings most Democratic strategists to the opposite conclusion.