Symposium | Is the Party Over?

Republican Leaders’ Two Choices

By Alan I. Abramowitz

For Tea Party supporters, the fall of 2013 was the best of times and the worst of times. Nearly five years after bursting onto the political scene to protest the policies of a new Democratic President, and nearly three years after helping to elect the most conservative Republican majority in the House since the 1920s, Tea Partiers could cheer the fact that many of the candidates they had championed were leading the effort to shut down the government and push the nation to the brink of default in an effort to delay or defund the President’s signature domestic policy achievement—the law that had come to be known as Obamacare.

The ability of a minority of House Republicans to push their party into adopting this confrontational strategy was itself a testament to the respect and fear that the Tea Party inspires in the GOP establishment. However, the failure of House Republicans to achieve their key policy objectives and the evident unpopularity of this confrontational approach with the American people have raised serious questions about the future of the Tea Party movement.

The Tea Party has now morphed into a kind of opposition movement within the Republican Party, threatening moderate Republicans and even mainstream conservatives who dare to question its aggressive strategy with potential primary challenges. By driving the GOP further and further to the right of mainstream American opinion, the Tea Party and its ultraconservative allies at the Club for Growth and the Heritage Foundation have done significant damage to the Republican Party’s image and to its future electoral prospects. The Republican Party today faces major challenges in seeking to remain competitive in national elections in the face of long-term shifts in cultural attitudes and in the demographic composition of the electorate. The Tea Party movement isn’t making it any easier for the party to adapt to these profound shifts in the electoral environment.

Data from the 2012 American National Election Study (ANES) underscore the dilemma that the Tea Party poses for Republican leaders. Tea Party supporters comprise a very large share of rank-and-file Republican voters. In 2012, 57 percent of GOP voters considered themselves supporters of the Tea Party movement, including 29 percent who described themselves as strong supporters. Only 13 percent of Republican voters described themselves as opponents of the Tea Party and only 5 percent as strong opponents. In the overall electorate, however, the story is very different. There, opponents outnumbered supporters by 39 percent to 29 percent and strong opponents outnumbered strong supporters by 29 percent to 14 percent. Moreover, evidence from more recent polls suggests that support for the Tea Party is even lower in the aftermath of the government shutdown and debt ceiling confrontations.

The influence of the Tea Party within the GOP is magnified by the fact that its members are among the most engaged and active supporters of the party. According to the 2012 ANES data, strong supporters of the Tea Party (only 29 percent of Republicans) comprised 49 percent of Republicans who displayed a yard sign or bumper sticker for a candidate, 47 percent of Republicans who gave money to a Republican party committee or candidate, 55 percent of Republicans who attended a GOP campaign rally or meeting, and 61 percent of Republicans who volunteered to work on a campaign. Moreover, a Pew survey conducted in July 2013 found that 62 percent of Tea Party Republicans reported voting regularly in Republican primaries compared with only 45 percent of other Republicans.

The energy and enthusiasm of Tea Party supporters have been a boon to Republican candidates around the country. But that enthusiasm comes with some worrisome baggage—opinions on a wide range of issues that are more conservative than those of Republican voters in general and far more conservative than those of the overall electorate. In the 2012 ANES survey, for example, 83 percent of strong Tea Party Republicans described themselves as very conservative compared with 58 percent of all Republican voters and only 26 percent of the entire electorate. Similarly, 92 percent of strong Tea Party Republicans opposed the Affordable Care Act compared with 73 percent of all Republican voters and only 39 percent of the overall electorate. And on choice, 67 percent opposed legalized abortion except for rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother compared with only 37 percent of the overall electorate.

Beyond their extreme views on policy issues, however, what most clearly distinguishes Tea Party supporters from the rest of the American electorate—and what may pose the greatest threat to the Republican Party—is their intense dislike for President Obama. Thus, in the 2012 ANES survey, 91 percent of strong Tea Party Republicans disapproved of the President’s job performance, including 89 percent who strongly disapproved. On a feeling thermometer scale running from zero to 100 degrees, the average rating given to the President by these strong Tea Party supporters was a frigid ten degrees. This surely explains the apparently unlimited enthusiasm of Tea Party supporters for almost any effort by congressional Republicans to oppose the President’s agenda, regardless of its chances of success or its impact on the wider public’s view of the Republican Party.

During the government shutdown and debt ceiling crisis, the Tea Party and its allies succeeded in taking control of the national Republican Party, pushing sometimes reluctant GOP leaders to embrace the Tea Party’s anti-government agenda as well as its confrontational strategy in dealing with President Obama and congressional Democrats. The results have been disastrous for the GOP—hurting its standing in the overall electorate and its ability to remain competitive in future elections. Republican leaders have two choices at this point. They can stand up to the Tea Party and try to move their party back toward the center of the American political spectrum or they can continue to go down a path that leads to long-term minority status for their party.

We are now seeing some signs of pushback against the Tea Party from moderate Republicans and business groups aligned with the Republican Party like the Chamber of Commerce. But such efforts will probably have to be much better organized and persist for more than one election cycle if they are to have any chance of success given the disproportionate influence of Tea Party supporters in GOP primaries and support for the Tea Party by well-funded outside organizations like the Heritage Foundation and the Koch-affiliated groups.

Above all, influential mainstream conservatives, including Republican leaders in Congress, will have to speak out against the extremism and confrontational tactics of the Tea Party for such efforts to succeed. Right now, it is the Republican leadership that is best positioned to counteract the influence of the Tea Party, and it is the leadership that should have the strongest incentive to do so in order to save the Republican Party from the Tea Party.

So far, there is little evidence that Republican leaders in Congress are willing to risk their careers to challenge the Tea Party and its media allies. Nor is it clear that such a campaign could succeed given the strength of the Tea Party among grassroots GOP activists, who make up a large share of Republican primary voters. Ultimately, it will be up to Republican primary voters to decide what direction they want their party to take. As long as Barack Obama is in the White House, they seem unlikely to turn their backs on the Tea Party.

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Alan I. Abramowitz is the Alben W. Barkley Professor of Political Science at Emory University and author of The Disappearing Center: Engaged Citizens, Polarization, and American Democracy.

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