The Tea Party may not scald Mitt Romney after all.
Romney has been dogged from the early days of his campaign by doubts about his ability to connect to the Tea Party voters who were instrumental in reshaping the political landscape in 2010. Those concerns reflected widespread Republican unease with Romney's past moderation, particularly his support for a Massachusetts health care law that was the template for the 2010 national healthcare overhaul.
Some Tea Party groups staunchly opposed Romney in the early days of his campaign, going so far as protesting his stump speeches. A series of other candidates that include Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Rick Perry saw brief surges in popularity as voters searched for, and discarded, a viable alternative to Romney.
Newt Gingrich's commanding victory in South Carolina seemed to solidify Gingrich's status as the sought after anti-Romney candidate. South Carolina has long been a bastion of the Tea Party, and a plurality of the nearly two thirds of voters who characterized themselves as Tea Party supporters voted for Gingrich. Voters who said they felt neutral about the Tea Party went for Gingrich as well, leaving Romney with only those voters who said they opposed the movement.
Romney Reversed Tea Party Numbers in Florida
But exit polls from Florida reversed those numbers. Romney won every Tea Party related cohort except for those who said they strongly support the Tea Party. As in Florida, nearly two thirds of voters said they supported the Tea Party, and they narrowly chose Romney over Gingrich.
Those results reflect in part a perception that Romney gives Republicans the best chance of unseating President Barack Obama -- Romney won by a comfortable margin among voters who identified can defeat President Obama as the most important quality in a candidate but did the worst of any candidate among the voters for whom is a true conservative was most important.
I think the Tea Party faction is like the rest of the conservative wing of the Republican Party: they're not too happy with Romney but the alternatives never seem to be able to close the deal for very long, said Gary Jacobson, a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego. I imagine the more thoughtful and strategic of them will say Romney is not our first choice, but if our real goal is to get rid of Obama he'll be our best shot.
Some political scientists argue that the Tea Party's influence has waned since 2010, pointing to plummeting public approval numbers after lawmakers affiliated with the Tea Party helped paralyze Congress during a summer debate over raising the debt ceiling. Larry Rosenthal, executive director of the University of Berkeley's Center for the Comparative Study of Right Wing Movements, pointed to disgust over the debt ceiling debacle and a furious backlash against efforts to curb unions in Ohio and Wisconsin as evidence of swing voter turnoff by the spectacle of the Tea Party in power. He said the swift demise of Bachmann and Cain's candidacies proved the Tea Party's limited reach.
The ability of that point of view to galvanize swing voters, to make people say 'let's try this, this makes sense,' I think it had a short shelf life, Rosenthal said. Among voters for whom expressing resentments is not adequate, the Tea Party politics have been diminished in how much they are attractive anymore.
Others disagree, arguing that the Tea Party continues to play a huge role in shaping the contours of the debate and pushing Romney to the right. Jacobson noted that Romney and Gingrich had spent the days leading up to the campaign attacking each other on issues, like Gingrich's consulting work for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac or Romney's support for universal health care in Massachusetts, that were Tea Party triggers.
All of the candidates have been competing for the Tea Party, Jacobson said. I think it's the dominant faction within the Republican Party, not the most extreme folks but the Tea Party sympathizers who are at the heart of the party.
Tea Party: Not a Nominator, But a 'Constellation of Beliefs' on the Right
Theda Skocpol, a professor of sociology at Harvard who co-authored the book The Tea Party and the Remaking of American Conservatism, pointed out that the Tea Party has never been a unified movement that would be effective at nominating someone. Instead, Skocpol said, the Tea Party represents a constellation of beliefs that have helped drive a race to the right.
What they have all been unified on is trying to find someone who can remove Obama from the White House and pushing the Republican party very far to the right, Skocpol said. And if you look at it that way I think they've been very successful, because over the course of the primaries Mitt Romney and everyone else has moved more towards Tea Party issues.
Romney has embodied this shift, Skocpol said, by adopting a conservative stance on issues that resonate with Tea Party voters. He has forcefully denounced the national health care overhaul and disavowed any connection to the Massachusetts law, and his economic plan hews to the Tea Party tenets of slashing taxes, limiting government and repealing the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill.
He has also been perhaps the most hardline candidate on immigration, opposing any measures that would provide relief to undocumented immigrants. He led other Republicans in excoriating Texas Gov. Rick Perry for providing in-state tuition to immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children. Skocpol said that opposition to public benefits for undocumented immigrants is a nearly universal theme among the hundreds of Tea Party chapters she interviews.
Romney has been steadily transforming himself into someone who's ultra-tough on immigration, and I think that's because his people understood that's because it would inoculate him from Tea Partiers, Skocpol said. I think Romney and his advisers have been quite ruthless and quite effective in positioning him at the right moments to at least blunt Tea Party skepticism about him.