Opinion: NH Tea Party “Has No Clothes”
This column ran in the NH Union Leader on September 9, 2011:
Fergus Cullen: In NH, the Tea Party movement is smaller than advertised
Even the Tea Party has its own establishment, if a self-anointed one. The New Hampshire Tea Party establishment just had a very bad week which exposed the movement as a much weaker force than advertised.
First, Jack Kimball, an authentic product of the Tea Party, got deposed as chairman of the state Republican Party. Kimball’s last-bunker supporters called for a Tea Party vigil on the eve of his removal to demonstrate exactly how much support Kimball had among grassroots activists. It didn’t work out quite the way they’d envisioned. A dozen people showed up.
Days later, New Hampshire primary frontrunner Mitt Romney spoke at a Tea Party Express rally in Concord. His appearance prompted some of the same Tea Partiers to organize a protest against Romney. This time maybe 20 people showed up, counting out-of-staters. In an example of Tea Party media savvy, organizer Paul Gagnon declared himself “disappointed” so few anti-Romney people turned out.
On Labor Day, not even celebrity television personality Sarah Palin could draw more than a couple of hundred people to a Tea Party rally in Manchester. That’s less than one-tenth the crowd that attended the most recent minor league Fisher Cats baseball game a couple of blocks away (6,074 according to the box score).
And in Tuesday’s special election for state representative in the Seabrook area, a Republican candidate who had easily won a primary despite Tea Party opposition went on to win his general election, overcoming continued Tea Party resistance. In all three special elections that have taken place this year, Tea Party-backed candidates got blown out.
A Republican who has helped candidates win elections for much longer than just the past two years looked at these four occurrences inside one week and shared his conclusion with me: “The New Hampshire Tea Party has no clothes.” If the Tea Party can’t organize something as simple as a state rep election or a rally, how can it possibly elect the next President of the United States?
Presidential candidates and the media have overestimated the size and influence of the Tea Party. They have treated a small number of vocal activists as though they control large numbers of votes. In reality there may be fewer than 1,000 Tea Party activists statewide. It takes more than an angry blog and frequent Facebook status updates to be a leader. It also takes followers.
Support for Tea Party sentiment is much higher than membership. Disgust about spending, the growth of government, and the nation’s indebtedness gave rise to the Tea Party, but these issues have been mainstream concerns of the Republican Party for decades, well before the Tea Party showed up. This is why 52 percent of likely Republican primary voters say they support the Tea Party, according to the University of New Hampshire’s most recent Granite State Poll, and only 8 percent say they do not. Dick Bennett’s American Research Group poll this summer put GOP support for the Tea Party at 46 percent.
But self-identification with the Tea Party is far lower. Polling data for one statewide Republican candidate in advance of last fall’s election found that just 7 percent of voters identified themselves as Tea Partiers.
There’s also a big gap between how Republicans view the Tea Party movement and how independents and Democrats do. UNH’s summer survey found that the Tea Party is underwater with independents (20 percent support, 27 percent oppose) and about as popular as spinach ice cream among Democrats (7 percent support, 67 percent oppose). Being identified with the Tea Party is a net negative for Republican nominees running in a general election.
Romney has read this political dynamic just right. While most other candidates have embarrassed themselves and wasted their time by lavishing unwarranted attention on a small number of Tea Party “leaders,” Romney has been content merely to avoid antagonizing them. In his Sunday Tea Party Express speech in Concord, Romney did not pander and managed to talk for 13 minutes without uttering the phrase “Tea Party” once.
Instead, Romney has embraced Tea Party issues on spending, debt, and taxes while keeping Tea Party activists at arm’s length. It’s the right approach, politically.
Fergus Cullen, a freelance columnist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.