Re-Selling the Tea Party in the GOP Primary

Between now and 2012, Michele Bachmann and others will have to defend a movement many see as extreme. How do their answers stack up?

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With solid debate performances by Rep. Michele Bachmann in New Hampshire on Monday night and businessman Herman Cain in the South Carolina one, it now seems more realistic than ever that an anti-Obama, tea-party firebrand will emerge as a legitimate player in the 2012 GOP presidential primary. With that newfound realism comes an important challenge for anyone seeking to claim the tea-party mantle while still competing for the nomination: how to package and sell the tea party to the rest of the Republican coalition.

The press is starting to ask questions about whether the tea party movement can play nicely with the rest of the GOP in 2012, as CNN's John King did in Monday night's debate.

As tea partiers answer those questions, we're going to hear a lot more of what Bachmann told us Monday night in response to King:

BACHMANN: Terry, what I've seen in the Tea Party -- I'm the chairman of the Tea Party Caucus in the House of Representatives. And what I've seen is unlike how the media has tried to wrongly and grossly portray the Tea Party, the Tea Party is really made up of disaffected Democrats, independents, people who've never been political a day in their life.

People who are libertarians, Republicans. It's a wide swath of America coming together. I think that's why the left fears it so much. Because they're people who simply want to take the country back. They want the country to work again.

Tea Party Express co-chair Amy Kremer reiterated that point in an interview Tuesday with MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell. "That's why there are Democrats and independents that identify with the movement, because they too want fiscal responsibility," Kremer said.

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Tea partiers have been saying this for a while now, so, as we get ready to hear it over and over until the 2012 election, it's worth taking a look at the numbers. They show that the tea partiers are mostly, but not completely, right. From a March 26-28 Gallup poll:

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It's not as if the tea-party movement is chock full of Democrats, so don't be misled by claims that the tea party is a "movement of Democrats, of this, and of that," as if Democrats are a full leg of the tea-party stool. But there are a few disaffected Democrats in it.

The size of the movement's independent contingent is up for debate. In late April, CBS found that 36 percent of tea-partiers self-identify as independents while 54 percent self-identify as Republicans. Still, that's a sizable portion.

The tea party is a rainbow coalition only insofar as it encompasses different kinds of conservatives -- 70 percent self-identify as conservative, according to Gallup -- so, as a rainbow coalition, it mostly spans libertarians, fierce critics of President Obama's stimulus and/or health-care laws, anyone who fears a neo-totalitarian state, and religious social conservatives (that last group turned out in force for Glenn Beck's rally on the National Mall last August, for instance). Some of those independents are likely libertarians and conservatives who turned away from the GOP after the Bush deficits, the Bush-instituted auto and financial bailouts, and who voted begrudgingly for John McCain even though he wasn't conservative enough for their liking. They are not all moderate, swing voters. And the tea party is not a centrist movement.

So while Bachmann and others have a point, in that they're seeking to represent a movement that overlaps with, but is not defined by, the Republican Party. But even when it is nonpartisans, the tea party doesn't always draw from as broad a coalition as some tea partiers would like us to believe.

Image credit: Molly Riley/Reuters