A thoughtful analysis by statistician Nate Silver, on his 538 blog, of the electoral chances of Tea Party candidates and the Republican Party at large in the House and Senate elections this November.
Silver gives at once an assessment of the institutional strength of the Tea Party movement, and analyzes the effects of the rise to prominence of Tea Party candidates on Republican Party chances along five dimensions: the likely outcome of specific races, impact on voter enthusiasm, voter perceptions of the GOP, conservative policy objectives and the idea of “big-tent” Republicanism.
The crucial variable is this, however: the Tea Party remains extremely unpopular among large segments of the broader public. How this plays out in the next elections, and those to come, is the big question.
Whatever the outcome of the Nov. 2 elections, you can be certain that commentators around the country will be fixated on the impact of the Tea Party movement.
At the nucleus of the Tea Party is disquiet over the direction of the country, and antipathy toward what is seen to be profligate levels of spending and governmental involvement in the economy. The Tea Party, however, has little formal organizational infrastructure. Some groups -– like FreedomWorks, the Tea Party Express, and the Tea Party Patriots –- claim to speak for it, as do some individuals like Glenn Beck and Jim DeMint. But they do not always agree on things as basic as which candidates to endorse. FreedomWorks, for instance, declined to endorse Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, fearing she was unelectable, while many of the other groups did.
Nor does the Tea Party have any official platform. And there seems to be little interest among members of the Tea Party at forming a political party proper; instead, most of its stakeholders are seeking to reinvent the Republican Party’s brand.
Any effort to assess the impact of Tea Party needs to keep this context in mind. Moreover, there are several distinct dimensions along which the Tea Party might be evaluated -– and they lead to some relatively complex conclusions about its effects.
Dimension 1: Tea Party’s impact on specific races
This first dimension -– how a Tea Party candidate has affected Republican chances of winning a particular Congressional or gubernatorial seat — has probably been the most widely examined, perhaps because it is relatively tangible. We can evaluate, for instance, the impact of Tea Party candidates on specific United States Senate races.
Other than in Delaware, then, the immediate impact of Tea Party candidates upon electoral outcomes is therefore somewhat more ambiguous than you might think (although it has probably been harmful to the Republicans on balance). Delaware, however, counts for a lot, having significantly reduced Republican chances of taking over the Senate.
Dimension 2: Tea Party’s impact on voter enthusiasm
The contours of this election are unusual. While the Democratic Congress has become very unpopular, and the Democratic president somewhat so, views of the Republican Party remain highly negative, and have not improved appreciably from the damaged condition following George W. Bush’s two terms as president.
The Tea Party, however, has made some conservatives feel as though they have a real alternative -– something new and fresh and different — to Democratic governance. The impact of this is hard to evaluate, but it could easily outweigh the loss of a Senate seat or two in specific cases like Delaware.
Dimension 3: Tea Party and perceptions of Republican “extremism”
After several victories by Tea Party candidates, like Mr. Paul’s in Kentucky and Ms. Angle’s in Nevada, there has been something of a feeding frenzy on liberal blogs (and to some extent, political media outlets in general), which have sought to unearth whatever uncouth statements, or unorthodox policy positions, the candidate has in his or her background. This process is still underway with Ms. O’Donnell in Delaware. What liberals seem to be banking on is that candidates like these will pollute the Republican brand by being poor standard-bearers. Indeed, the White House is considering formalizing the strategy, according to reporting by The Times.
Dimension 5: The Tea Party and the Republican “big tent”
The Tea Party also presents longer-term risks to the Republicans. It’s one thing to mount primary challenges in states like Utah and Alaska, which can support (very) conservative Republicans. A party that cannot also support moderates like Mike Castle of Delaware, however, or Rick Lazio of New York –- states with long traditions of moderate Republicanism –- would seem to have limited upside in the majority.
The struggle between establishment and insurgent Republicans will not have been resolved –- instead, it will continue against the background of the battle for the Republican presidential nomination, which is almost certain to be combative.
But there is one fundamental Republican problem that the Tea Party has not resolved: the brand remains extremely unpopular among large segments of the public. In fact, the Tea Party is in some ways a reaction to this: particularly after Delaware, we should probably take the Tea Party at its word that stands in opposition to the Republican and Democratic establishments alike.