Ryancare and the Tea Party

Journalists covering Romney’s new position in favor of the Ryan Medicare plan have focused on how this will be a boon for Democrats if Romney gets the nomination.  “The reason this matters: It will give Dems a weapon in the general election against Romney,” says Greg Sargent, blogging at the Washington Post.

That may be the case. But Romney’s move may not even help him with conservatives, at least judging by our interviews with Tea Party activists. Tea Party members we spoke to perceived Mitt Romney as a flip-flopper, and were unconvinced by his policy changes. They also took electability very seriously, prizing above all a candidate who could beat President Obama.

Tea Partiers’ opinions of Romney’s politics were pretty mainstream, often perceiving him as an uncompelling candidate who had switched his positions too frequently. Those we spoke to were aware that Romney had tried to blur his earlier support for a health bill similar to “Obamacare.” A typical comment came from Ellen: “I think that Mitt Romney is just not very charismatic.    Also there’s the Massachusetts health care.” Aware of Romney’s rapidly evolving views, these activists are unlikely to be swayed by yet another change in platform.

Moreover, though Tea Partiers are often portrayed as impractical ideologues, and they do hold inaccurate views of many policy areas, they can be extremely pragmatic about politics. And they have one overarching political goal: getting rid of President Obama. As James told us, “Mitt Romney – he’s alright.  I think he’s alright – he’s not quite conservative enough – but we have to get Obama out.”

This was not an unusual comment. Again and again, Tea Party activists took electability into account when considering presidential candidates – even candidates they were fond of. In our interviews a year ago, when Sarah Palin was a contender, several Tea Partiers made a careful distinction:

  • “Sarah Palin I like, but I don’t think she’s electable.”
  • “I like Sarah Palin, but she polarizes people and the media hates her.  I think she can do more speaking.”
  • “I love Sarah Palin, but there’s no way.”

Tea Partiers were fully aware of the broader perceptions of Sarah Palin, and those impressions had a major impact on their assessment of her candidacy.  If Mitt Romney has damaged his electability by seeking the more conservative position, he’s unlikely to have made any friends in grassroots Tea Party circles.

In sum: Democrats may not be the only ones to benefit from Romney’s embrace of a widely unpopular policy. Newt Gingrich may get a boost as well.