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?

Joe D

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.


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?


Ben Sauer

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.

Ian Callum

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.


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?


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.


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.

Edmund Dantes

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.


I'm lamenting the effect of the "Tea Party" on actual tea parties...


Rubio was not a product of the tea types, he was adopted by them. He's not some newcomer to politics the way O'Donnell or Rand Paul are. He was Speaker of the Florida House. Thus, he shouldn't count as a victory for tea types.

David Chowes, New York City

The "Tea Party" helped the GOP yesterday -- with some exceptions; in the long run it may end up destroying the Republicans.

Since the "TP" is a fraud and lies by saying it is a grassroots populist party -- in reality is is dominated by corporate interests and the very welathy (e.g., the Koch Bros., big oil and bigger big.

The peons who are members lack the sophistication to understand this -- and the economy will improve for the top 2% and get far bleaker for the remainder.

Then what?


Tea Party had little impact on the election in MA - Scott Brown will not have an easy time getting re-elected in two years unless he becomes the "great compromiser" - thus really losing what is left of the Tea Party in MA


Not really following this. OK, imagine no entity known as the "Tea Party." Are we still to imagine that the voters were furious, upset by high unemployment, the race of the President, or whatever your favorite explanation is? And that some percentage of those voters voted for, say, Sharron Angle in the primary? Or are we assuming that away? I don't think you meant that, but even so, we're starting to get into the area of Mark Twain's theory that Shakespeare's plays were written, not by Shakespeare, but by "someone else of the same name."

Eric M. Jones

The Tea Party comprises mainly Republicans. This is the political equivalent of trying to get more shelf space in retailing. They will certainly caucus and vote with Republicans.

Perhaps the Democrats should gin up some new-and-improved labels for their new-new-new associate democrats.

R. Lapidus

DaveChowes:"The peons who are members lack the sophistication to understand this - and the economy will improve for the top 2% and get far bleaker for the remainder.

Then what?"

Sure as frost on a December morning: Some David Duke type will ascend; a more fascistically leaning prototype of a party replacing the Tea Partiers and more (and dangerous) unrest.

The "tea partiers" and their fellow-travellers were galvanised not only by the economy but the spectre of an "alien" government personified by an "alien" president (an "alien," in reality, they were all-too-familiar with while trying to avoid it. Put Hillary Clinton in place of Barack, with the exact same accomplishments and ask yourself if this morning-after scenario would have occurred).


I wonder if Tea Party candidates would have run on an independent ticket if they weren't embraced by the republican party. In that case, if the Koch brothers and Fox News had not created the movement in the image of the Republican (#11), dissidents would have split the conservative vote and Dems would have done much better.


In my view the shuffle is just more meaningless distraction. In every midterm election since the the 1930's there has been a flip in numbers in the Congress. Americans seem to just be mindlessly voicing opposition to whoever is in office and I question whether these toggles have any real impact. Sure the vocal opposition that perceives a victory will be full of false bravado and beat their chests for awhile and make some noise. Just more useless mental masturbation. But, the real political power will still lie where it has for decades. In the hands of corporations and lobbyists. Follow the money folks and you'll really determine who has influence in the political processes. Meanwhile the whole circus keeps the mindless masses distracted and from looking at their own behavior of overconsumption and living beyond their means that contributed greatly to the current economic mess. What we should really be focused on is how to build and maintain a sustainable economy.



The real story isn't in what the Tea Party is going to do in Congress, it's what they are doing to the Republican Party as a whole. They aren't ruining the party so much as dragging out the divisions and rivalries and exposing the lack of a cohesive vision. It's been over 20 years since the Republican Party has been unified behind what should be its single greatest mission... smaller government. How much credibility could a message like that carry if the same old Republicans who squandered the opportunities of 2000 were still in charge?

Expect to see as much infighting as partisan wrangling while the Republicans try to work out who they are. It may hurt them politically in the short term but it needs to happen.


The so called Tea Party was instrumental in allowing the Republicans to control the narrative on the election. A few of their more obviously insane candidates may have lost, but they had a great deal to do with the general perception that Obama was a radical leftie who had instituted socialized medicine and raised taxes when he was a depressingly moderate politician who'd done neither.


Well, this doesn't seem like a very Tea-Party friendly group of commenters but to me the issue is not only whether the TP helped win or lose one more Republican seat. Rather, it's whether the strength of the movement (which, as a libertarian, I support, thereby making me, apparently, a proto-fascist peon) causes Republicans (or Democrats, for that matter) to take more seriously the importance of smaller government.

The relevant alternative, in other words, would have been Republicans running under the banner of small government, as they always have in the past, but then acting like big government Democrats once in power. If the Tea Party movement helps reverse that it will be well worth the loss of a seat or two.