Expert Commentary

Political movements, presidential nominations and the Tea Party

2011 paper from Claremont McKenna College about how the Tea Party compares with other ideological movements in American history.

Tea Party-related outcomes were, research suggests, quite complex in the 2010 mid-term elections. In Senate and gubernatorial races, Tea Party-backed candidacies produced mixed results; though some nominees proved too marginal to win a general election, many others found success. Moreover, in the U.S. House races, about half of the 32 candidates who helped the Republican Party pick up seats received significant Tea Party support, according to a 2011 paper by a scholar at Claremont McKenna College.

The paper, “Political Movements, Presidential Nominations, and the Tea Party” (PDF), looks at other ideological political movements in American history and situates the Tea Party within this tradition of political insurgency. (The paper, part of the book The Making of the Presidential Candidates 2012, is posted with permission of the publisher, Rowman & Littlefield; this material is protected by copyright. All rights reserved. Please contact the publisher for permission to copy, distribute or reprint.)

Key points made in the paper include:

  • In term of its public profile and coherence, the Tea Party compares favorably with other ideological movements in American history; however, it has “blossomed more quickly than past movements like the Populists, Progressives, or conservatives,” partly as a result of Internet technology.
  • Given that large-scale success can often lead to the unraveling of political movements, the Tea Party is still well-situated to make a strong showing in 2012: “In the 2010 elections, the Tea Party experienced enough success for activists to remain engaged, but not enough to lead to complacency.”
  • In 2012, the Tea Party will need to determine how to direct its energies, as no leading figure emerged from the 2010 elections in a position to command its constituency. “A key question will be whether the movement will end up coalescing around a single candidate, as conservatives got behind Barry Goldwater and the New Politics behind George McGovern in 1968, or will spread its support around as the New Politics did in 1968 and as the religious right has typically done since 1988.”
  • Political history suggests that ideological movements are typically more successful in reshaping the frameworks of debate than in winning elections. Movement figures such as William Jennings Bryan, Barry Goldwater, and George McGovern all lost elections despite the support of ideological movements. “If that history is any indication, there is a real possibility that the Tea Party will saddle the GOP in 2012 with a nominee who inspires the movement and who articulates the message but who cannot win. Indeed, it already did exactly that in a number of cases at lower levels in 2010.”
  • How pragmatic the Tea Party will be is a crucial election issue: “A key test of 2012 will be whether the Tea Party (or Tea Parties) will follow the Delaware model, where the movement preferred losing with a Christine O’Donnell rather than winning with a Mike Castle, or a Missouri model, where the movement made peace with a Roy Blount and sailed to easy victory in a swing state.”

Tags: presidency

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