Reading the Tea Leaves for 2012

Reading the Tea Leaves for 2012
How will the Tea Party help shape the Republican nomination process?

Zachary Courser, Guest Columnist September 15th, 2011

Monday night’s “Tea Party” debate on CNN showed the extent to which the Tea Party remains an important force in the Republican Party. But despite the continuing relevance of the Tea Party movement to American politics, it still lacks a center or a leader. This presents a challenge for Republican candidates for president who are attempting to be standard bearers for their party while also interpreting and channeling the often unfocused energies of the Tea Party.

The movement helped to define the recent midterm elections as a protest against government spending run amok in a time of economic crisis. While the movement never quite managed to coalesce around a consistent platform, rebellious Tea Party candidates inspired millions of conservatives who wanted to upend a policy process they felt had become unresponsive to their beliefs and values.

The Republican Party establishment, challenged in several important Senate primaries by Tea Party groups, has since struggled to remain in control of the direction of conservative politics. Although Republican numbers swelled in the House of Representatives and in state houses across the country, the party establishment continues to reap the whirlwind of Tea Party protest. It was not only the policies of elected Democrats that fired the movement, but also the perceived failings of elected Republicans to control spending and apply conservative principles to the management of the economy.

House Speaker John Boehner, for example, struggled to unite his caucus in his battle with the White House over raising the debt ceiling, as many members who had run as Tea Party candidates chose to oppose any new federal debt. The loose coalition of Tea Partiers housed uncomfortably within the Republican caucus still do not present a well developed platform, nor do they easily submit to leadership even within their own ranks. While the movement cannot be denied as a force in conservative politics, because of its scattered and leaderless nature it is difficult to read the tea leaves to see exactly how the Tea Party will shape the battle for the Republican presidential nomination.

While no candidate yet has managed to become the Tea Party nominee, it is telling that every candidate is courting their influence. The difficulty for candidates is in knowing exactly what the Tea Party wants and which organizations that peddle Tea Party influence can actually deliver delegates and votes.

During the midterm elections Tea Party Express and FreedomWorks emerged as two leading organizations within the movement. Tea Party Express, headed by California Republican political consultant Sal Russo, focused on influencing Senate primaries and organizing high-profile rallies across the country headlined by Sarah Palin and other conservative figures. While effective in giving some strategic political direction to Tea Party candidates, Tea Party Express is not a broad-based membership organization focused on mobilization, and is largely a creature of Russo’s consulting firm. It is questionable if they will be able to deliver significant support either nationally or in battleground states. Nonetheless, the group still manages to command the attention of candidates, and it co-sponsored the Tea Party debate with CNN.

FreedomWorks emerged as a uniquely effective Tea Party mobilizer during the Taxpayer March in September 2009, helping to organize an event that brought an estimated half-million protesters to Washington. Despite their relative prowess as Tea Party organizers, FreedomWorks leaders Matt Kibbe and former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey have maintained focus primarily on activist training and protest. Moreover, the group has an antipathy for leadership and formal structure and takes an uncompromising position with elected officials and candidates that do not embrace their principles. FreedomWorks recently pulled out of a nationwide tour organized by Tea Party Express and boycotted a recent appearance of Mitt Romney in New Hampshire over their objections to Romney’s record on healthcare and taxes. Given these factors, FreedomWorks appears to be a questionable ally for potential Republican nominees.

The question of where presidential candidates need to turn for support is a vexing one, especially because the Tea Party frontier is still wide open for exploitation by almost any group with conservative pretensions.

With candidates fearful of offending Tea Partiers or missing an opportunity to exploit opportunities to garner their support, it is proving quite easy to attract top tier candidates to events with meager resources or influence. This was on display at a Labor Day event organized by conservative Sen. Jim DeMint in his home state of South Carolina.

The Palmetto Freedom Forum consisted of a somewhat unlikely trio of panelists testing candidates on questions of conservative orthodoxy. The format and questioning was geared to a conservatism so strident that it likely did more harm than good to all the candidates who submitted themselves to it. In addition to DeMint’s questions about taxation, Rep. Steve King of Iowa asked questions about immigration and Princeton professor Robert George asked some oddly novel questions about Congress interpreting and enforcing the Fourteenth Amendment. The eagerness of all the candidates to quickly assent to the far-right litmus test of this odd assemblage highlighted the pressure on Republican presidential candidates to tack hard to the right in order to attract Tea Party support. Only Mitt Romney attempted to push back on some of the panel’s more extreme questions, whereas Newt Gingrich one-upped Professor George with an unenforceable and unconstitutional oath to remove federal judges he deemed out of touch with mainstream America. While the forum’s ostensible goal was to test candidates on their fidelity to the founding values of America and the Constitution, the consensus reached was one strangely at odds with the Constitution and American political tradition.

While the benefits of Tea Party support for gaining the Republican nomination for president are uncertain, the Palmetto forum demonstrates the danger for candidates: how not to be drawn into a blind alley with a disorganized and disordered conservative movement. Tea Party activists will likely exert a strong influence on Republican primaries and caucuses (think Pat Robertson in 1988), and if the race gets tight, candidates will not be able to afford to ignore or alienate them. However, the eventual nominee may end up losing significant independent support if they are pulled too far to the right. According to an August CNN poll, a majority of Americans now have an unfavorable opinion of the Tea Party, with favorability slipping 7% since the midterm elections. Democratic strategists are hopeful that the Republican nominee will be easily linked with an increasingly unpopular Tea Party movement.

A possible strategy for candidates dealing with the Tea Party is to stay more aloof from specific groups and spend more time organizing grassroots citizens who are favorable to the goals of the movement. Since there is little firm organization among Tea Party groups, the ground is fertile for some kind of mobilization of support within campaigns. However, this will prove difficult as the Tea Party movement has steadfastly resisted leadership or direction. Candidates might also put pressure on the Republican National Committee to do more to bring order to the Wild West atmosphere Tea Party protest has inspired in conservatives. Their energy and enthusiasm is something Republicans desperately need to reignite their party, but their continued unruly, uncompromising and often unorganized protest might well shake apart conservative support for the eventual nominee, and help hand President Obama a second term in 2012.
Zachary Courser, the author of two recent scholarly articles on the Tea Party movement, holds a doctorate in Government from the University of Virginia. Send him an e-mail at

The States That Do — And Don’t — Pick Presidents

Kyle Kondik, Political Analyst, U.Va. Center for Politics September 15th, 2011

The old cliché is that “As Ohio goes, so goes the nation,” although the inverse of that is also true: “As the nation goes, so goes Ohio.”

The Buckeye State, long recognized as the premier presidential bellwether, deserves its status. In the 28 presidential elections since 1900, Ohio has correctly picked the winner 26 times.

Ohio has company at the top though — it beats out another top presidential swing state, New Mexico, by only percentage points. The Land of Enchantment has incorrectly picked only two elections since 1900, but because it only became a state in 1912, it has only been right 23 of 25 times, and thus has a slightly lower batting average (92%) than Ohio (92.9%).

The other states with good records since 1900 — as in, they’ve voted with the winner of the Electoral College more than 85% of the time — are Nevada (25/28), Missouri (25/28) and Illinois (24/28).

Generally, the states with the worst records since 1900 are the states of the Deep South. This is no surprise — in the early 1900s, most southern states voted for Democratic losers before turning ruby Red Republican, while occasionally supporting third party candidates in the middle of the century. Of the 11 states of the old confederacy, only two — Peripheral South states Florida and Tennessee — have correctly picked more than 70% of the presidential winners since 1900.

Likewise, the District of Columbia, since being granted presidential electors in time for the 1964 campaign, has had the same record of picking presidential winners (5/12) as the party its voters have uniformly supported (the Democratic Party). Vermont and Maine’s relatively poor record stems from the fact that they were the only two states to never support Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt — it’s unthinkable today to think of those states as being solidly Republican, but they once were. (Alaska and Hawaii never had the chance to back FDR because they weren’t states when he was on the ballot.)

The majority of all states are in the solid 70%-85% range, generally supporting the presidential winners while occasionally going against the grain. The record of the states since 1900 is reflected in Map 1.
Map 1: How often states have sided with the winner in presidential elections since 1900

Note: Numbers on map indicate each state’s number of Electoral College votes.

Ohio’s misfires came in 1944, when it picked Republican Tom Dewey (whose running mate was Ohio Gov. John W. Bricker) over FDR, and in 1960, when it preferred Republican Richard Nixon over Democrat John F. Kennedy. “Of America’s 10 most populous states,” Nixon said at an Ohio event in 1981, “Ohio is the only one besides my home state of California in which I’ve never lost a national election, and I thank you for that.”

Ever since 1960 — for nearly half a century — Ohio, alone among its peers, has a perfect record in picking presidents.

New Mexico’s misfires are more recent: in 1976 it went for Republican Gerald Ford in his close loss to Democrat Jimmy Carter and in 2000 for Democrat Al Gore over Republican George W. Bush. The 2000 margin — only 366 votes — was closer in terms of raw votes than Florida (won by Bush by 537 votes).

But New Mexico’s sterling record might be in jeopardy because its growing Hispanic population could make it more Democratic and thus less likely to support narrowly-elected GOP presidents. In 2008, its electorate was 41% Hispanic according to exit polling, or more than quadruple that of the nation as a whole (9%). This assumes that Hispanics, who voted two to one for President Obama in 2008, remain a Democratic constituency, which is not at all certain.

Meanwhile, Ohio’s electorate in the 2008 election was only 4% Hispanic, which means Ohio might be less representative of the nation going forward if it continues to have a relatively small Hispanic population.

Illinois, trending Blue, and Missouri, trending Red, are probably past their best days as bellwether states.

Nevada — tied with the Show Me State as the third rated state on the list with a 25/28 record — might be the state to watch going forward. In 2008, its electorate was 69% white, 15% Hispanic, 10% black, 3% Asian and 3% other, which might generally be what the electorate looks like, racially, in the near future. And, had we started this survey exactly 100 years ago (the 1912 election) Nevada would have the best record at 24/25 elections, misfiring only in 1976.

For the time being though, and despite population loss that just reduced its number of electoral votes from 20 to 18, Ohio is going to be perhaps the most-watched swing state in 2012, as both parties will try to appeal to the state’s fickle voters. For nearly half a century the Buckeye State has been the Northern Star of presidential elections, guiding political watchers in the direction of winners. It remains the nation’s bellwether until its voters — uncharacteristically — decide to go against the national currents. At that point Nevada or New Mexico might take its crown.

Crystal Ball interns Taylor Maxwell, Rebecca Rubin and Marco Segura contributed to this article.
Perry Jumps Romney in Presidential Rankings

U.Va. Center for Politics September 15th, 2011

There’s a reason why Rick Perry took so many shots from so many candidates at his first two Republican presidential debates: He’s now the frontrunner in the race, and that is reflected in our presidential rankings.

Perry’s entry into the race on the same day as the Iowa Straw Poll has effectively relegated all the other candidates, except for Mitt Romney, to pretender status. If the race actually came down to Perry vs. Romney, it would make for an interesting decision for Republicans, effectively offering a choice between head (Romney, probably the more electable candidate in November) and heart (Perry, the more authentically conservative candidate).

But, we’re not there yet. It’s still possible that one of the “pretenders” will rise to “contender” status, or that, with the help of the pretenders, Romney will regain his status as the front-runner. (Michele Bachmann is doing her best to pull Perry back down to earth, for example.) But thanks to his polling surge — and the fact that the debates, though difficult, were not a disaster for him — Perry’s on top of our rankings for now.

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