According to 2010 Midterm Election exit polls, 41% of those voting in House elections favored the Tea Party. 31% opposed it. 25% had no response. Overall, 53% opposed the Republican Party – yet the Republican Party won control of the House of Representatives. Traditional Republicans see this election as a referendum on the Obama administration and a mandate to undo many of the things that have been done in the past two years. Tea Party leaders see the election results as placing them in the driver’s seat for the presidential election in 2012. Actually, the 2010 Midterm Elections revealed a political party in transition and crisis.
In this election, Tea Party candidates ran as Republicans and were a big part of the Republican success in taking control of the House. But they did not run with impunity. Credible Tea Party candidates did well, but most of their candidates lost – many of them because of a lack of credibility. Yet, with 41% of voters identifying themselves as Tea Party supporters, the Tea Party has emerged as the source of energy in the Republican Party.
For the past thirty years, the Republican Party found its strength in a coalition of traditional conservatives and evangelical Christians. Those groups were bound together by hot-button issues like abortion, national defense, and lower taxes. Now, that coalition is changing and the emerging Republican alliance is an uneasy one – a fact revealed in the poll results showing 53% of voters identified themselves as opposing the Republican Party, even though a significant number of that opposition voted for Republican candidates.
The Tea Party tapped into voter anger over the direction of the economy, immigration, same-sex marriage, and a general distrust and dislike of President Obama. Fueled by that anger, the Tea Party turned to the familiar tactic of street protests to build support for its positions. (They called their gatherings ‘rallies’ instead of ‘marches’ but they served the same function just as well). Though somewhat ill-defined, the Tea Party has loosely coalesced around several charismatic spokesmen – Sarah Palin, Glen Beck, and Rush Limbaugh among them. They offered a hard-line, uncompromising, decidedly conservative message that energized supporters to hold local rallies, work for approved candidates, and vote.
As a result, the coalition under the Republican umbrella has now become a Tea Party-Traditional Conservative-Evangelical Christian coalition. However, the galvanizing issues for that coalition are no longer opposition to abortion, lower taxes, or military support, but opposition to President Obama and the undoing of measures passed during the first two years of his administration. This shift in motivation gave the Republican/Tea Party success in the midterm elections, but it puts them in a precarious position for 2012.
Assuming 2010 voter patterns hold in the 2012 election, any presidential candidate hoping to win from the Republican Party will have to do so with Tea Party approval. The Republican candidate will be a Tea Party candidate. That gets the Republicans a theoretical 41% of the vote, which leaves them 10% shy of victory. To attain a majority, the Republican/Tea Party candidate would have to appeal to half of the 21% who identified themselves as having no position for or against the Tea Party or the Republicans – essentially, undecided voters. Assuming the Tea Party’s 41% support lies to the right of center, a Republican/Tea Party presidential candidate would have to find motivating issues through which he or she could appeal to those slightly to the left of current Tea Party policy – without alienating supporters on the extreme right. Very few issues offer the potential for even a slight shift to the center and none of the potential candidates who have appeared so far seems capable of accomplishing the task. Getting from 41% to 51% will be a monumental task for the tenuous Republican/Tea Party alliance, one that will require a candidate who has yet to step forward.