Theda Skocpol has an interesting piece in the Atlantic explaining why the Tea Party isn’t going away any time soon. She writes from the perspective of someone who generally dislikes the Tea Party and what it stands for, so some of her commentary is skewed. But she still makes some very good points:
Even though there is no one center of Tea Party authority—indeed, in some ways because there is no one organized center—the entire gaggle of grassroots and elite organizations amounts to a pincer operation that wields money and primary votes to exert powerful pressure on Republican officeholders and candidates. Tea Party influence does not depend on general popularity at all. Even as most Americans have figured out that they do not like the Tea Party or its methods, Tea Party clout has grown in Washington and state capitals. Most legislators and candidates are Nervous Nellies, so all Tea Party activists, sympathizers, and funders have had to do is recurrently demonstrate their ability to knock off seemingly unchallengeable Republicans (ranging from Charlie Crist in Florida to Bob Bennett of Utah to Indiana’s Richard Lugar). That grabs legislators’ attention …
Democrats need to get over thinking that opinion polls and media columns add up to real political gains. Once the October 2013 shutdown ended in supposed total victory for President Obama and his party, many Democrats adopted a cocky swagger and started talking about ousting the House GOP in 2014. But a clear-eyed look shows that Tea Party obstruction remains powerful and has achieved victories that continue to stymie Democratic efforts to govern effectively—a necessary condition for Democrats to win enthusiastic, sustained voter support for the future, including in midterm elections.
Opinion polls are largely driven by the news cycle and by the way things are spun by the press. This makes them a superficial measure. Poll after poll during the Bush administration showed that many of Bush’s policies were popular, even while the man was widely hated. Meanwhile, the opposite has been true with Obama. The reason for this is that many of the people being polled are fairly low information. For eight years all they heard about Bush was that he was an evil man who tortured puppies and ate babies. The press seldom talked about his actual policies and successes. At the same time, for the last five years all people have heard about is how Obama is some sort of messiah, whose very presence in the White House will cause the oceans to recede and bring upon peace on earth and goodwill between men. The press seldom talks about Obama’s actual policies or failures. Since the nation is sightly right of center, it is no wonder in such an atmosphere that Obama’s policies have always lagged far behind the man in popularity.
Unlike polls, elections depend on getting out the vote. High information voters are more likely to show up without prodding. Low information voters will show up if they are prodded along or are caught up in enthusiasm for a candidate. This is how Obama was re-elected even though presidents with his kinds of numbers are usually defeated, and why the Tea Party can exert such an influence. Polls overwhelmingly show that people generally support the same policies that the Tea Party supports. Yet, the press has done everything it can to poison the well and make people hate the Tea Party as an entity and hate the people who represent it. This makes it an uphill climb for any Tea Party candidate wanting to win a national election. However, since voters in off-year local elections tend to be high information and highly motivated, if the Tea Party fields good candidates, those candidates can win in 2014. The Tea Party could also be a potent force in 2016, depending on the Democratic nominee, how long her coattails are, and how sick people have become of the Democrats.