Why is the "Tea Party" getting so much attention?

Why is the "Tea Party" movement getting so much attention?

Posted Oct 15, 2010

One of the most important stories of the 2010 midterm elections is the "Tea Party" movement.

But a recent polling report from Project Vote--"What Happened to Hope and Change?"--raises some important questions about why the "Tea Party" movement is getting so much attention. This poll report, summarizing the results of surveys of those who voted in 2008 with over-samples of African-American, low-income, and young voters, noted that "Tea Party" sympathizers have experiences and opinions that are very different from the experiences and opinions of most Americans, and specifically African-Americans, lower-income and younger voters.

Here's the primary conclusion that I took from the Project Vote poll report:

By concentrating on the “Tea Party” minority, the media has amplified their voices. Overwhelmingly white, Tea Party sympathizers are almost universally dissatisfied, yet they have the least reason for dissatisfaction. A strong majority of them say their personal financial situation is fairly good or very good; they are more likely to be residentially stable and married, with no children living at home; three out of four went to college almost all are working or retired; and they make more money on average than the other groups. Only six percent reported having to worry about buying food for their families in the past year, compared to 14 percent of voters nation-wide, 37 percent of blacks, 21 percent of youths, and 39 percent of low-income voters. Virtually every Tea Party sympathizer plans to vote in 2010.
As should be clear from these responses, and the full report that follows, these “Tea Party” voters do not speak for all Americans, and they are severely disconnected from the experiences and views of lower-income, black, and young Americans. The fascination with the Tea Party on the part of reporters, pundits, and politicians does a disservice to our nation; it buries any discussion of the needs and concerns of the average American, and almost completely overlooks the views of younger, lower-income, and black voters who cast ballots in 2008 and will play an increasingly important role in American democracy in the future.

So if the Tea Party sympathizers are so atypical, why are they getting so much attention? There are three reasons;

First, the Tea Party sympathizers are loud. This is literally true -- I've had a chance to see a couple of their events, and they are literally quite loud! But it is also true in a more rhetorical way -- they have been effective in getting their messages and candidates communicated to the public. But they also have a strident and divisive message, which contributes to their ability to get their arguments out into the mainstream media.

Second, the Tea Party is new and different. The media like to focus on new and different narratives, and the Tea Party is providing a fresh angle for the media's attention. Rather than having to concentrate primarily on the Democratic and Republican parties, the Tea Party gives reporters and their editors something different to cover as they develop content to sell to readers and viewers.

Third, the Tea Party has been successful. Candidates associated with the Tea Party have beaten incumbents in states like Alaska and Utah, and been able to dominate in Republican primaries in other states like Delaware and Nevada. These successes have surprised the political establishment, and of course these surprises have fueled the attention of reporters and the media at the local, state and national levels.

But the big question is, with all of this attention, will the Tea Party be successful on November 2, and beyond? Stay tuned, I'll take that question up in a forthcoming essay!