Did the Tea Party Help or Hurt the Republicans?

Is the Tea Party responsible for yesterday’s election results?? Probably.? But perhaps not in the way you were thinking.

Journalists have written thousands of pages describing the anger, fury or excitement of the Tea Party.? But this isn’t how an economist would approach the question.? Perhaps the single deepest idea in economics is the opportunity cost principle.? And so it is worth asking: What is the opportunity cost of an active Tea Party movement?? To figure this out, you need to ask: “Or what?”

When you ask this question, you realize that figuring out the influence of the Tea Party requires comparing last night’s results to the alternative.? What election outcomes would have occurred had Tea Party activists not started getting organized a bit more than a year ago?? We don’t observe this counterfactual, but we can make some informed guesses.

My guess is that if there were no Tea Party, then the Republicans would likely have fielded more credible candidates who would have won both the Delaware and Nevada Senate races.? Likewise, a weak Tea Party candidate may also cost the Republicans the Colorado Senate seat.

There were successes for the Tea Party.? But these aren’t successes relative to the “or what?” question.? It’s likely that just about any Republican could have won in those races where the Tea Party lights shone brightest – Rand Paul‘s election to the Kentucky Senate seat, Marco Rubio defeat of Florida Governor Charlie Christ in their Senate race, or Mike Lee‘s win in Utah.

And in Alaska, voters appear likely to have done an end-run around the fervent Tea Partiers,?electing the newly-independent Lisa Murkowski.? If there were no Tea Party, she would surely be a less disaffected member of the Republican caucus.

Even if the Republicans had gotten closer to a fifty-fifty senate, they probably couldn’t have wrested control from the Democrats, because a Tea Party-laden Republican caucus is surely?less attractive to potential party-switchers like Joe Lieberman or Ben Nelson.

Now perhaps there were some congressional races where Tea Party enthusiasm carried the day.? But you’ve got to balance this against the possibility that unpopular candidates in the headline Senate and gubernatorial races actually hurt other Republicans down the ticket.

I’m not convinced by my analysis.? But I do wonder: What would this morning’s newspapers (and next year’s Congress) look like had the Tea Party movement never been launched?

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  1. Joe D says:

    With Charlie Crist sharply dividing the Democratic voters while the state GOP vilified him, of course any (serious) Republican could have won Florida’s Senate seat. Thanks, Big Oil! You should get your Gulf shelf rigs no later than early February.

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  2. Joe says:

    I suspect that the Tea Party traded senate seats for house seats. Extremists tend to do well in house elections, where the electorate is smaller and more homogenous, allowing more extreme views to be represented. A similar effect was observed in 1994 – the more extreme conservative Republicans took the House in a swarm, but had less success in the Senate (though they did take the Senate, they needed many fewer seats in 1994).

    The problem with trading Senate seats for House seats is that House seats tend to be much more volatile – see this year for example – while Senate seats tend to stay with incumbents. A Republican Senate would be more likely to stay Republican even in a slightly Democrat year, while a Republican House would likely switch even with a forty-plus seat majority.

    I imagine there could be some economic value to trading seats, but considering the Tea Party traded a possible Republican majority in the Senate (currently likely to be 53-47, at least 2 if not 3 seats cost due to Tea Party nominees winning, and two possible party changes), that economy is probably going to be complex. What’s the difference between a 40 seat majority and a 15 seat majority in the House? Not insignificant, certainly; but is it more significant than a ~40% chance at taking the Senate?

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  3. Ben Sauer says:

    Your missing that without the tea party movement this wouldn’t have been a close election. Sure it cost us a few seats here and there and I wish those states had been smarter, but it got us Illinois, Pennsylvania, possibly here in Washington, Wisconsin, and around 65 house seats.

    The counterfactual you’re describing is what if the tea party had vetted their candidates not what if it hadn’t existed.

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  4. Ian Callum says:

    It’s too early to say what effect the Tea Party will have on the Republican party. The GOP won more seats than usual in a midterm, but ultimately it is presidential elections which create real changes in American politics. The result of the 2012 election will tell the tale.

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  5. Ben says:

    I think you are looking at actual candidates, but like most economics arguments, it completely misses the intangible elements. How do you measure the excitement/momentum created by the Tea Party movement, the free press and its positive or negative impact, and the “ground game” created by passionate Tea Party advocates?

    Yes, the Republicans could have fielded candidates better “on paper,” but without the atmosphere created by the Tea Party, would those candidates really have panned out?

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  6. david says:

    This is the type of analysis that had the Dallas Cowboys in the Super Bowl before the season then lists the “what if’s” when it doesn’t happen. There is a reason they play the games and there is a reason they hold the elections.

    What they do in Washington after the fact is the real issue. Presidential politics is and has been for a long time a bait and switch. The power of the purse is in Congress as we saw in the Pelosi disaster. That is the real story of the Tea Party impact. We will see how it works out.

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  7. Ted says:

    I would think the tea party increased voter participation. I haven’t seen the numbers on it but that is my guess. So the question becomes who was motivated to vote because of the tea party? Looks like the republicans.

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  8. Edmund Dantes says:

    This is ridiculous. But for the Tea Parties, the Republicans would have been wiped out this year. Did you not notice how they pulled the entire country in a conservative direction on the exit polls? Do you seriously think Steele and the old Republican guard could have done that on their own?

    Get real. The Tea Parties are the future of politics, and both Republican and Democratic insiders need to come to grips with the new face of democracy.

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