It is hard to predict the effect Tea Party voters will have on the Iowa Republican Caucus race. They don’t seem interested in backing any single candidate, at least not yet.
Can the Tea Party be a fly in Mitt Romney’s ointment and play a surprise king (or queen) maker in the upcoming Iowa caucuses?
After talking with Tea Party functionaries across Iowa, Patch couldn’t find evidence that they will be able to, or are interested in, shifting resources behind one candidate. In fact, there is no evidence of any centralized organization, and no apparent desire for one.
At this point in the race, Tea Party members and other far-right conservatives are content with pushing issues rather than candidates. Currently, they seem to be drifting toward Herman Cain, but that could easily shift again before January.
Since the race began, they have been looking for the not-Mitt Romney candidate, moving on from flirtations with Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and some favored candidates who decided not to run, such as Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee.
The Tea Party has become a potent national force, but as a voting bloc, their influence is unclear. It’s difficult to determine how many people in Iowa are members of the Tea Party, or even a precise approximation of the number of people who share their views. Even this late in the game, many Tea Party members don’t yet seem to know which candidates will receive their votes.
“If you’re trying to use the Tea Party to predict election night, the way people used the Christian Conservatives to predict turnout for Pat Robertson and Mike Huckabee, that same yardstick won’t work in this case,” said Craig Bergman, executive director of Tea Party of America, a relatively new organization that is seeking to become a communication hub for Tea Party groups. “The Tea Party is a totally different dynamic. It is a collection of people who do not trust any of their elected officials.
“All of the candidates are under intense scrutiny.”
Tim Hagle, an associate political science professor and caucus watcher at the University of Iowa, said the Tea Party will have its biggest effect on caucus night by turning out an energized base of conservative voters.
But where will that support be funneled?
“The wild card part of it is who they are going to support, and they have several choices so that makes it kind of unclear,” Hagle said.
Who is the Tea Party? And who will they Endorse?
To determine how much of an effect the Tea Party will have on an election in Iowa, it would be helpful to know who the Tea Party members are, how many members there are, and who they plan on endorsing.
The problem with that is not even the leaders of Tea Party groups know how many people there are, with many of them hesitant to even venture a guess. Tea Party members generally pay no membership dues, unlike other interest groups such as the National Rifle Association, and aren’t officially a part of any formal party in the sense as Democrats and Republicans. Many Tea Party groups also actively withhold their membership lists, keeping that information away from public eyes, according to Bergman.
In fact, part of the reason the organization Tea Party of America (TPofA) came into existence is because several Tea Party groups across the state and nation have no idea which fellow groups exist.
“The Tea Party doesn’t have a national group with millions of dollars funding it, so every group is autonomous and has its own rules,” Bergman said. “We’re very loosely knit.”
Therefore, the TPofA seeks to serve as a connection point for fellow Tea Party Groups and, according to its website, “does not seek to direct or control any other Tea Party group,” as that “would be futile and downright un-American.” As a consequence, the TPofA, like almost all Tea Party groups in Iowa, will not be endorsing a presidential candidates. All of the Tea Party members interviewed for this story insisted that it would be against the ideals of the Tea Party to endorse a candidate.
Bergman also said the Tea Party members are aware of what happened to the Christian Coalition when they backed losing candidates, and internal strife over policy disagreements led to its disintegration. The goal, instead, is to keep the consensus over the three main principles of reducing taxes, reforming taxes and cutting spending.
“We absolutely do not want to alienate people who agree with our three main principles, and disagree with, say, principle 7, 9 or 10,” Bergman said. “That’s just not a mistake we’re going to make.”
With no central group, Bergman said the thousands of Iowans who are members of the Tea Party instead meet in small groups representing a region or even a small town, groups such as the Quad Cities Tea Party, the Tea Party Patriots of Northeast Iowa (of Elkader), the Guardians of America Tea Party (of Boone), Fight Back Iowa (of West Des Moines), Taking America Back (Cedar Falls), the Strawberry Tea Party Patriots (Waterloo), Save our American Republic (Des Moines and Osceola), the Siouxland Tea Party (Sioux City), and, last but not least, the Tea Party Patriots of Spencer, IA.
Bergman said that doesn’t even count the numbers of conservatives such as 9-12 groups, strict constitutionalists, libertarians and others — including, he insisted, some Democrats — who would be Tea Party-friendly even though they aren’t active members. He said there are pockets of spontaneously formed groups, united behind a common cause, but with limited communication with the larger movement. Some don’t even have formal names.
“There is a whole group of people who are Tea Party who don’t realize they’re Tea Party yet,” Bergman said.
So how many Tea Partiers are there?
Those arguing for the pervasiveness of the movement like to point to surveys like one conducted by the Des Moines Register in early 2010, which found that 33 percent of Iowans surveyed regardless of party affiliation supported the Tea Party movement. In a more recent poll conducted by Public Policy Polling, which had Herman Cain in the lead in Iowa, 30 percent of likely caucus goers polled self identified as Tea Party members. In another recent poll, conducted by NBC-Marist, half of likely caucus goers polled described themselves as Tea Party members.
Beyond that, it appears the best way to narrow in on the number is anecdotally. Bergman said the Tea Party Express, held in Iowa earlier this summer, garnered about 200-250 people at each stop. Meanwhile, TPofA’s Tea Party rally, featuring Sarah Palin, drew about 2,000 people.
Judd Saul, of Cedar Falls, is the founder of the Cedar Valley Tea Party, a regional Tea Party organization that is centered in Blackhawk County. He said his Tea Party group may be one of the largest and best organized of the groups in Iowa, drawing about 25-30 people to meetings held once a month, with more looking to join all the time. The group is organized enough that early next year, Saul says he plans to organize a conference against Agenda 21, a worldwide plan endorsed by the United Nations that he said, if not stopped, will change the way cities in the United States plan their community space.
To put the attendance numbers in perspective, if there were 1,000 Tea Party groups in Iowa just like Saul’s — and there isn’t — that would equal 30,000 Tea Partiers who were active on a monthly basis.
He said Tea Party groups are made of small, politically involved memberships with an independent bent, and they are likely to stay that way.
“People like things the way they are, they don’t want to have their local groups assimilated by a larger group,” Saul said.
Ryan Rhodes, founder of the Iowa Tea Party, which works to facilitate small grassroots Tea Party meetings, says his organization has 15,000 people on its e-mail list. He said he would place the numbers of active Tea Party members in Iowa in the thousands, while members of the public who are sympathetic to at least some Tea Party views could number in the hundreds of thousands.
Rhodes say these numbers include more voters who would also consider themselves social values conservatives than for Tea Parties in other states, which are more fiscally focused. This also muddies the waters of exact membership.
“It’s different in Iowa, we have people who are among both crowds,” Rhodes said.
Who Will be the Not-Romney?
Mitt Romney is polling well nationally, and is the presumptive favorite to win the Republican nomination. Rick Perry, for a short spell, was also a favorite, and still is viewed by many as his only realistic challenger.
So who will it be for Tea Partiers? Romney or Perry?
How about neither.
“True Tea Partiers, they’re not going to vote for Romney or Perry, that’s what my gut says,” said Saul. “(Romney and Perry) aren’t conservatives.”
Saul said that while many Republicans seem willing to forgive Romney for his more moderate views, members of the Tea Party are still wary of Romney’s support of instituting the individual mandate for health care when he was the governor Massachusetts, a health plan which inspired the national health care plan, dubbed Obamacare, that subsequently helped spur the growth of the Tea Party.
Rhodes agreed that Romney is not a Tea Party favorite.
“Romney is not very Tea Party like,” he said. “The stands he took when he governed are not ones that we really relate to.”
Perry, meanwhile, at least according to Saul, is an establishment Republican, not likely to implement the reduction to government that Tea Partiers crave. Meaning that Perry will have to fight to win back conservatives if he wants to make it past the early races as a legitimate challenger to Romney.
Craig Robinson, the founding editor of the Iowa Republican who in the past worked for Steve Forbes’ campaign and the Republican Party of Iowa, said that this anti establishment sentiment runs deep in the Tea Party, to such a degree that even conservative friendly Rick Santorum is seen as less desirable due to his experience in the U.S. Senate.
“I think if they’re going to swing the election, I would say they’re going to swing it toward a non establishment candidate,” Robinson said.
Of the non-establishment candidates, with Ron Paul losing some Tea Party and Republican support due to his still somewhat unpopular foreign policy views, Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann currently stand as the primary favorites to win Tea Party support.
Saul said he continues to hear support from fellow Tea Parties growing behind Cain.
“I think more people will go for Herman Cain than Romney here,” Saul said. “They’re all for Herman Cain now.”
But if they don’t all jump behind one candidate, Hagle said it is likely the way it looks right now that Romney will be able to pull out an Iowa victory.
“If they don’t coalesce around that single candidate, Romney will probably get that 25 to 30 percent of the vote and win the caucus,” Hagle said.
The Difference the Tea Party Could Make (And Already Has Made)
In the end, the Tea Party’s effect on the election may not be on who is chosen to win, but instead of what candidates are forced to talk about while in the state.
“Where you’ve seen the influence of the Tea Party, is where the issues that we’re talking about it, more than any candidate,” Robinson said.
If not just electoral numbers, it is the very idea of the Tea Party that many Republicans especially are sympathetic to, and that means candidates like Bachmann, Cain and Paul will elbow each other out of the way to be seen as the most Tea Party friendly, the most anti taxes and pro small government.
Bachmann, for example, still brags up her voting against raising the debt ceiling during the ferocious debate on the issue in July and August. She was joined in her “No” vote by several new members of the House Representatives, who were swept into power by the Tea Party/Conservative fueled wave in the 2010 midterm elections.
Newt Gingrich, in a speech to Tea Party members, said he would fight against Agenda 21. A group of Ron Paul supporters in New York recently were accused of holding an anti Romney protest under an illegitimate Tea Party banner. Cain, with his 9-9-9 plan already a hit with Tea Party members, recently won big in a South Carolina Tea Party Straw Poll.
It is also why even a big Republican money (and Chris Christie) backed frontrunner like Romney, who has to know many of the Tea Party will vote against him, goes out of his way to pay lipservice to the movement.
In this sense, the Tea Party has already put its mark on this election cycle no matter what happens. Not an endorsement of candidates, but a fervid endorsement of issues, that go beyond the election.
In the end, Romney’s electoral hopes may be saved, though, by impending presence of the only candidate that Tea Party members would dislike more than a rich, moderate, former Governor of a Northeastern state: President Barack Obama.
If Romney is viewed as the most likely candidate to win a general election against Obama, just enough Tea Party sympathizers could lend their votes his way to prevent, in their view, the re-election of the greater of the two evils.
“No Tea Party members will be voting for Barack Obama,” Bergman said. “I’m fairly certain about that.”
Source: Wakuee Patch