10/07/2010 02:58 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Tea Party Is the GOP's Problem

Among the many midterm imponderables is this: will the Tea Party have as big an impact on the election as it's had on the chattering class?

The media obsession with the Tea Party has made it the big political story of the year. Fox News midwifed and validated it, and liberal commentators seem equally fixated on the phenomenon, which they view with a mixture of dread and envy. They are forever dreaming of populist uprisings, and when they actually happen, they're on the wrong end of the ideological spectrum.

But is the Tea Party really a new and genuinely independent expression of conservative populism, or is it something more familiar -- the right wing of the Republican Party? A study released yesterday sheds some interesting light on the question.

The study, called Religion and the Tea Party in the 2010 Election, confirms much of what is already known about the Tea Party -- its members are generally white, older, more affluent and more male than the population at large. They are very conservative, and as we all know, they have a gimlet-eyed view of government.

But the report also purports to correct some common misconceptions about the movement. Some key findings:

  • One in 11 voters describe themselves as a Tea Party member. That's a lot, but hardly an irresistible force in America politics. As Jones and Cox note, it's only half the percentage of voters who identify themselves as Christian conservatives.
  • Despite Dick Armey's opportunistic attempts to get to the head of the Tea Party parade, the movement is more socially conservative than libertarian, at least on social issues. Its members, for example, are strongly opposed to abortion and gay marriage.
  • Nearly half (47 percent) say they are also part of the religious right, a key GOP constituency that supposedly has gone to ground in recent years.
  • Tea Partiers are overwhelmingly partisan Republicans. Most (76) say they lean Republican and over 80 percent say they plan to vote for GOP candidates in their districts.
This last point is offered as upending conventional wisdom, but it shouldn't be. Many commentators, including the Progressive Policy Institute's own Ed Kilgore, have pointed to the basic compatibility of Tea Party attitudes with those of hard-core GOP conservatives. In backing challenges to GOP moderates, the Tea Party looks like a looking-glass version of the "netroots" progressives who backed Howard Dean in 2004 and Ned Lamont's primary challenge to Sen. Joe Lieberman.

There are some distinctly new flavors in the Tea Party brew, of course. One is an antic Constitutional fundamentalism that yearns to roll back amendments providing for the direct election of Senators and the progressive income tax. And the Tea Party's decentralized, headless nature means its members really don't take orders from the GOP hierarchy.

But in general, Tea Partiers look like GOP conservatives, only more so. Not surprisingly, they are disproportionally from the South, the GOP's geographical and ideological base.

So maybe progressives shouldn't worry too much about the movement. Ultimately, the Tea Party is a Republican, not Democratic, problem. Yes, its members are energized to vote and will turn out in droves in November. But they are also divisive, polarizing and, often, downright weird (Delaware Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell) or borderline psychotic (New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino).

If Democrats do as badly as everyone seems to expect in the midterm elections, it won't be because of the Tea Party. It will be because independent voters, who put Barak Obama over the top in 2008, have defected to Republican candidates to protest joblessness and the sluggish recovery. Meanwhile, Tea Party passions are pushing Republicans to the nether fringe of conservatism, leaving an abandoned center for progressives to recapture after the election.

This item is cross-posted at Progressive Fix.