The Tea Party’s 2016 Challenges

As this spring’s primary calendar has rolled on, one thing has become clear: 2014 has been a very different experience from 2010 for the anti-establishment wing of the GOP known as the Tea Party. So far the group has not defeated a single Republican incumbent in the Senate.

It looks like the Tea Party may win one Senate primary, Mississippi’s June GOP runoff where incumbent Sen Thad Cochran looks to be in trouble, but overall its success has been muted with party establishment candidates winning in such states as North Carolina, Georgia and Kentucky.

What’s changed for the Tea Party in four years? A lot. But the American Communities Project looked at merged Pew Research Center polling data from 2010 and compared it to 2014 across the ACP’s 15 types and noticed a few points in particular – and they may real have significance going forward to 2016.

First, four years later, the number of people who say they “agree” with the Tea Party is down across each of the 13 community types where there is a statistically viable sample. Second, it seems the group has taken an especially hard hit in the critical (for Republicans) Evangelical Hubs, as we suggested after the Kentucky primary. Those counties are in light purple on the map below.

In 2010, more than 39% of those who lived in the Evangelical Hubs said they agreed with the Tea Party, among those who knew what the group was. Thus far in 2014, the figure is about 22%. That drop of more than 17 percentage points is the biggest the Tea Party has seen across all the groups in the ACP.

That 39% “agree” number in the Evangelical Hubs in 2010, was also the highest of all the groups in the ACP. In 2014, there are six county types where the Tea Party’s “agree” number is higher, including the Working Class Country counties (dark blue on the map) and the Exurbs (yellow on the map), which have the highest “agree” numbers now.

County Type

2010 “Agree” %

2014 “Agree” %

Evangelical Hubs Evangelical Hubs

39%

22%

Graying AmericaGraying America

38%

23%

ExurbsExurbs

38%

25%

LDS EnclavesLDS Enclaves

37%

21%

Hispanic CentersHispanic Centers

36%

19%

Working Class CountryWorking Class Ctry.

35%

29%

Military PostsMilitary Posts

34%

22%

Rural Middle AmericaRural Middle America

34%

24%

African American SouthAfrican Am. South

33%

21%

Middle SuburbsMiddle Suburbs

31%

23%

College TownsCollege Towns

31%

19%

Urban SuburbsUrban Suburbs

30%

18%

Big CitiesBig Cities

27%

15%

 

There could be any number of things driving those drops. The last few years have featured government shutdowns and threats of default on the U.S. debt. But that steep decline among those Evangelical Hubs may be tied to other concerns.

In 2010, the Tea Party, which is still a fairly amorphous movement (or a broad-based one depending on your point of view), was new and trying to define itself. Visiting Tea Party Web sites then, we found that the content on them varied greatly from place to place. Some featured strong religious overtones, while other offered more of a straight Libertarian view of politics, which can be light on the social conservative policies that motivate evangelicals.

It may be that in 2014 many evangelicals have decided the Tea Party’s interests and goals don’t match theirs – or that the two don’t match well enough. And for Tea Party Republicans that is no small concern.

If these numbers hold, the significance reaches beyond 2014 to the upcoming presidential race in 2016 and the candidacies of potential Tea Party Republicans like Sen. Rand Paul and Sen. Ted Cruz. The Evangelical Hubs aren’t only crucial vote-rich terrain in general elections, they are full of evangelicals who tend to be the kind of loyal, engaged Republicans who vote in primaries.

As the Republican sorts through its various factions for 2016, the poll data suggest that any Tea Party candidate may have to work extra hard to win over evangelical communities and finding a unifying candidate that excites the many pieces of the GOP could be difficult.

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