A year ago, the tea party was the focus of Washington, praised by Republicans for the punching power it displayed in the 2010 election fight and derided by Democrats as an unhealthy influence on the ascendant GOP.
Now, less than a year before the next elections, the tea party is striving to carve out a role going forward, even as its public support falls, its clout in Congress wanes - the House Tea Party Caucus hasn’t met since June 2 - and its street-level power has been overshadowed by the new, more violent Occupy movement.
Still, there are continued signs of power, albeit tied more closely to Republican Party politics: One tea party affiliate co-hosted a GOP presidential debate in September, and last week another group with deep tea party ties hosted a debt summit on Capitol Hill. The movement also is thought to have helped persuade Republicans on the deficit-reduction supercommittee to reject Democrats’ desire to pair some tax increases with spending cuts aimed at reducing the deficit by $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years.
While it arose as an anti-Washington movement, the tea party gained steam when its adherents began to make themselves heard in politics, and particularly in Republican primaries, where they helped topple a series of the party’s preferred candidates in favor of more conservative options.
“I think the tea party movement is still pretty significant out there, and I think we will be a force in politics as long as there is a debt problem,” said Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican. “We haven’t had any really enormous rallies lately, but I still think there is a big movement out there, and they are shaping races. They are shaping primaries. Some of it will be interesting to see how some of the different Republican primaries go the next time around.”
Since the tea party helped elect a wave of fiscal hawks in 2010, however, polls show the movement has become better known - and less popular.
For example, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll from November 2010 showed that 30 percent of registered voters considered themselves tea party supporters, while 59 percent did not. Fast-forward to this month, and the number of self-identified tea partyers fell to 25 percent, while those who don’t so identify jumped to 69 percent.
The Pew Research Center found a similar trend, including in an October poll that discovered that more people opposed the movement, 44 percent, than supported it, 32 percent. Pew’s research also showed that the group’s demographic pool is shrinking. Independents and Democrats are taking steps back, while the remaining supporters tend “more likely to be male, white, affluent, weekly churchgoers and to follow national news very closely.”
“Views of the tea party have grown more negative, and have become more politically polarized, over time,” said Carroll Doherty of the Pew Research Center.
John McLaughlin, a GOP pollster, said that’s not surprising, given Democrats’ repeated attacks.
“Democrats have been running a pretty tough campaign against the tea party,” he said. “It’s pretty clear that the Democrats saw that last year the tea party was a vehicle that enabled independents and some Democrats to vote Republican. They have had some success because it is hard for a movement to defend itself. It is not an institution. It is not a candidate. It is a collection of individuals that are kind of amorphous.”
Mark Meckler, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, suggested that the movement is still in sync with voters. He points to polls that show most Americans share the movement’s core principles of fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government and free markets. The mission, Mr. Meckler said, is not to promote “the tea party.”
“We are here to help ensure that the country has a future, and we believe that by changing the debate, and encouraging people to support those principles, we have done so,” he said. “It doesn’t matter to me what they call it, or whether the ‘tea party’ is popular or not. What matters to me is seeing those ideas become important in the American psyche. The numbers in support of smaller government, lower taxes and less burdensome regulation, and those who read and understand our Constitution are on the rise. Those are the ways we measure success, not by polling on the ‘tea party.’ “
Still, along the way, the tea party seems to have lost some of the outsider feel that boosted its credibility, even as those who remained adherents began to work within the political system to push their agenda.
Republicans began to embrace the movement. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota formed the House Tea Party Caucus, Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina formed the Senate Tea Party Caucus, and some activists are working closely within the GOP.
Mr. Paul, who rode tea party power to election last year, agreed the movement has become more Republican, but emphasized that its members are driven by the deficit and debt, not party labels.
“I think if you did a survey of the people in the tea party and asked them, ‘What’s more important, to be a Republican or a conservative?’ I think they would all tell you, ‘To be a conservative.’ “
To drive home the point, he said, he thinks that somewhere between 80 percent and 90 percent of tea partyers would support a conservative Democrat over a liberal Republican. “I think the Republican Party is more conservative than the Democratic Party, but I think these are people who don’t view party as the most important thing,” he said, adding that the movement is shaping the GOP primary season and will continue to be a force in the 2012 elections.