In “Crashing the Tea Party,” an Op Ed piece in the New York Times (8/16), David E. Campbell and Robert D. Putnam present data they have culled from their own repeated interviews since 2006. Their primary finding is that the Tea Party has become increasingly unpopular with the American public. The percent of supporters has remained stable, they write, but the percent of opponents has doubled over the last 14 months to 40 percent. The Tea Party, they report, is even less popular today than other unpopular groups, like “Muslims” and “atheists.” In fact, it is as unpopular as “the Christian right.”
They say the Tea Party is less popular than either the Democrats or the Republicans, but what about Congress or, at a low point, Mr. Obama?
The authors have identified Tea Party members as longtime conservative Republicans, mostly white Christians who oppose immigrants and blacks (Sorry, Mr. President) and especially promote a bigger role for religion in government. The authors don’t spell out what this bigger role means in their short take, however. Too bad, because Catholics, across political parties, value a role for religion in the public square. Reports vary on how many Tea Partiers are Catholics; I’ve seen figures ranging from 18 percent to 28 percent, which means they could be about equal to the size of Catholics in American society--around a quarter.
In their conclusion, the Campbell and Putnam liken the Tea Party’s role in the 2012 election to the role played by the anti-Vietnam War movement in supporting McGovern in the 1972 election—a Republican landslide. The implication seems to be that they favored an extreme candidate, who lost the majority. It’s too early to assess the truth of that analogy. But if the authors are correct, the Republican Party may wish to curtail the influence of the Tea Party, lest Mr. Obama be re-elected, though few expect a landslide.
The Campbell and Putnam data, however, should be put beside a competing set of facts. First, Tea Party candidates won enough seats in the midterm to give the House a Republican majority. They have power, however popular they may now be. Second, these freshmen have consistently refused to compromise when voting, which has moved the Republican Party, and government policy, to the right. Just think about the deficit-ceiling debacle. Third, because of the strength of the Tea Party—its simple vows against tax increases and growth in spending, for example, and the outsized media attention it garners—the Republicans must figure out how to either pacify or satisfy the Tea Partiers as they select a presidential slate. Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry appeal to the Tea Party—as would Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee were either of them to run, and Newt Gingrich, too, if more voters were to notice he has tossed his hat into the ring. Can any of them win? That’s where the popularity or unpopularity factor comes in.