A year ago, the tea party movement looked like an irresistible wave sweeping through the Republican Party. But in Tuesday’s Iowa caucuses, the three candidates who hewed closest to the tea party line – Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich – sank straight to the bottom of the pack.
Instead of choosing a rigorous fiscal conservative such as Bachmann, Perry or Gingrich, Iowa Republicans divided most of their votes between Mitt Romney, the tea party’s least favorite candidate, and Rick Santorum, a social conservative who voted for big spending and defended congressional earmarks when he was in the Senate. Ron Paul, at third place, was the most successful of the tea party-friendly candidates, but the acerbic libertarian’s claim to 22 percent of Tuesday’s caucus votes could well turn out to be his high-water mark for the year.
The tea party’s allure has been fading in national polls, too. A study in November by the Pew Research Center found that 27 percent of people said they disagreed with the tea party, while only 20 percent said they agreed. The poll’s authors said it appeared that voters increasingly blamed the tea party and its champions in Congress for the gridlock in negotiations over the federal budget.
So does this mean the tea party is over? Not exactly.
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The tea party has changed the political landscape in ways that are likely to last for a while. Every Republican candidate at least claims now to be a fiscal conservative. Even Romney, whose greatest achievement as a governor was mandatory health insurance, now says he supports a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution that would cap spending at 20 percent of gross domestic product, a deep cut below the current 24 percent. Santorum goes even further, proposing a spending cap of 18 percent.
And it’s not really the tea party’s fault that its favorite candidates, Bachmann and Perry, stumbled. Bachmann, who founded the Tea Party Caucus in the House, never found a way to turn that into a qualification to be president. Perry, whose resume was strong on paper, proved inept in televised debates.
According to the “entrance poll” sponsored by news organizations, about a third of those who voted in the GOP caucus pronounced themselves “strong supporters” of the tea party; of those, 30 percent said they voted for Santorum, 17 percent for Gingrich and 16 percent for Paul.
Romney tied with Perry for fourth place among strong tea party adherents. It was Romney’s first-place showing among non-tea partiers that made him the statewide winner – by just eight votes.
That divide mirrors the fragmentation of the tea party itself. It’s always included a mix of libertarians (Paul voters), social conservatives (Santorum voters) and older Reagan conservatives (many of whom were Gingrich voters).
That’s the biggest reason, when real votes were being counted, that Romney came out on top of the Republican field: His opponents split the remaining votes so many ways.
It’s noteworthy, too, that although nearly half of the GOP caucusgoers labeled themselves “very conservative,” only about a third were willing to call themselves “strong supporters” of the tea party.
So in an election year that might have cemented tea party dominance of the GOP, the top two candidates come from other wings of the party: Santorum, a quintessential social conservative, and Romney, a quintessential establishment man.
And the most likely nominee is still the candidate many tea partiers like the least: Romney.