The Tea Party Revealed

The op-ed of the day is from political scientists David Campbell and Robert Putnam, reporting on surveys they have done that contain in-depth analysis of Tea Partiers. What's different about their data is that they did a panel study (where the same respondents are interviewed at multiple times) that began in 2006, before the Tea Party emerged. That means they can look at today's Tea Partiers and know who they were before. And guess what: the prevailing narrative around the Tea Party -- that it's made up of folks who were not politically involved before, but just got mad about government spending -- is false. It's worth quoting at length:

Our analysis casts doubt on the Tea Party’s "origin story." Early on, Tea Partiers were often described as nonpartisan political neophytes. Actually, the Tea Party's supporters today were highly partisan Republicans long before the Tea Party was born, and were more likely than others to have contacted government officials. In fact, past Republican affiliation is the single strongest predictor of Tea Party support today.

What’s more, contrary to some accounts, the Tea Party is not a creature of the Great Recession. Many Americans have suffered in the last four years, but they are no more likely than anyone else to support the Tea Party. And while the public image of the Tea Party focuses on a desire to shrink government, concern over big government is hardly the only or even the most important predictor of Tea Party support among voters.

So what do Tea Partiers have in common? They are overwhelmingly white, but even compared to other white Republicans, they had a low regard for immigrants and blacks long before Barack Obama was president, and they still do.

More important, they were disproportionately social conservatives in 2006 — opposing abortion, for example — and still are today. Next to being a Republican, the strongest predictor of being a Tea Party supporter today was a desire, back in 2006, to see religion play a prominent role in politics. And Tea Partiers continue to hold these views: they seek "deeply religious" elected officials, approve of religious leaders' engaging in politics and want religion brought into political debates. The Tea Party's generals may say their overriding concern is a smaller government, but not their rank and file, who are more concerned about putting God in government.

This is pretty consistent with what a lot of reporters who have been talking to these folks have been saying for a while. It's important for the Tea Party itself to maintain its narrative, that it is comprised of ordinary folks who just got fed up and finally decided to hold the government accountable. That's something else that has come through in the reporting -- at a Tea Party rally, every participant will insist that he or she was out there complaining about George W. Bush's profligate spending back when he was president (funny how no one noticed).

Anyone who looked closely could have seen all along that it just wasn't true: these were conservative Republicans who took advantage of a political moment to adopt a new political identity. They were assisted by well-heeled organizations and an enormously helpful conservative media, and they've been remarkably successful at terrifying their fellow Republicans and moving the national conversation in the direction they want. But they should be understood for what they really are.