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?


Most of these comments represent the triumph of received truth over reality. The Tea Party is not a party. It is not a figment of big oil's machinations. The only in depth examinaton of the movement (that's what it is) showed that it ran on midlle class folk who focused on small government in the abstract and the administration and Democratic Congress' Social Democrat type of agenda in particular. People truly do not like what has occurred in Congress and they were motivated to take action. There are really only two meaningful questions. Will insurgent Representatives follow the mandate they've received or sink into the typical cynical Congressional transformation? Will those who stirred themselves remain involved (or gradually return to indifference)? For a long time, government has been irrelevant to most Americans. We just saw what happens when they pay attention. Sadly I suspect my questions are answered yes and no in that order.

Buut please, do not call the analysis economics. These are all political statements and they remind me of why I left the academy.



I can't understand why "journalists" (I use that term very lightly) try to describe the Tea Party. Give it up, you can't or you won't. Let's explore the "you can't."

Your liberal minds can't seem to understand that these Tea Party wins are important because the winners are not lifetime politicians. They have a very free market view of the way things should be governed unlike many of the career Republicans we have been sending up for years. These guys will do our bidding ("we the people" - remember that concept) or they understand they should be shown the door. Who cares about Murkowski, her liberal tendencies will get her out of a job soon enough, and darn near did this go around. At the very least, she will be careful about her stance on issues, and more importantly, how she votes. On a larger scale, so will EVERYONE in Congress, courtesy the Tea Party. In the end, that's all we wanted, and despite the defeat, IMO, that's a win...She knows she has to listen to her constituency. How refreshing. Now I ask you, what good is it to put a Repukican in office if he becomes a Demoncrat when he gets there? What no answer....oh...did I just destroy you entire premise? Sorry, tee hee!

Now let's explore "You won't." You have an agenda. There is no question about it. Please do not try to defend your objectivity. You do not have any and are shoveling the last bit dirt over the dead corpse we used to call journalism. You and many other metros have killed the newspaper industry. I have worked for newspapers for the past 2 decades. Thanks to unreliable rags like yours, I will probably have to find another career at some point. But I digress....Let me give you an example of what I'm sure you think is a cryptic, very clever way to put a spin on yesterday's overwhelming victory.

I can't count how many writers have stated that the "Tea Party victories came as a result of a down economy." The deception is mutli-facted. First, that statement has some truth to it. Americans are hurting and do want change but what members of the Tea Party are really concerned with is the outright, criminal shifting of our government to a socialistic platform. What compounds this is that much of it has been done by Executive order in direct disregard of what "We the people" want. You see, this represents a much more fundamental reason to develop candidates who will do what we say, and replace both Democrats and Republicans alike with this new breed of politician, dare I say public servant? You, however, refuse to report it that way, because it makes sense. Not only is the reasoning very clear, but it is in direct opposition to your liberal agenda.

You say the turnout is because of the the economy and people are just running scared, possibly not thinking straight. By doing so, you try to strip any sophistication and credibility you can from the movement and the people behind it. You also give Obama and his administration cover for the dismantling of our nation. And what do you care? "Hillbilly conservatives will never understand what we are up to, will they? Why they are not nearly as smart as we are, and besides, they work for a living and don't have time to interfere with us elites."

To that I say...this hillbilly sees you coming and understands you much better than you think. Members of the Tea Party can engage you and defeat you in debate anytime anywhere. What a scary future for liberals.



why should we listen? you predicted the Dems would hold the house!


Everyone keeps talking about how the Tea Party will show the "divisions" in the Republican Party. Apparently the Democrats are lucky they lost because now that most of their moderates are gone they will not have their "divisions" to argue about.

Even so, the media is already talking about whether Obama will or should become moderate a la Clinton did, or more liberal, as some of his supporters want. Thus the Democrats really do have to deal with their own divisions as well.

I am amazed the left is putting up with us still having troops in Iraq and Afghanistan(as well as sending missiles hitting civilians), and prisoners in Gitmo. Can you imagine their outrage if a Republican was doing that now? Let's see if they continue to give him a pass on those things, or will they be the ones that split?


The concept of an "opportunity cost" implies that the Tea Party is a Republican project. This is misguided.
The Tea Party is a hostile takeover of the Republican Party. As such, it both helps and harms Republicans... but the question is not whether the Republicans could have refrained from launching a Tea Party Project. It's whether they could have better cooperated with or better resisted the Tea Party.

John Thacker

Ron Johnson of Wisconsin was also a Tea Party candidate, and another one of these political neophytes. He won last night, defeating the well-respected Russ Feingold. That's certainly not a race that "any Republican would have won," I think.

It's true that he did not receive anywhere near the media attention of some of the other candidates (perhaps because the Midwest is less interesting to the media than the coasts), but I think that his victory was at least significant.


What happens in two years to the successful candidates who were endorsed by the Tea Party? As a body, the Tea Party stands for very conservative fiscal and social policies. Their candidates, representing a small minority in the Senate and the House, will either learn the necessary process of compromise or they will have no impact on legislation. Both are anathema to the Tea Party, which demands that its candidates hew to its desires, not even those of the Republican party. It will be interesting to see if the Tea Party voters stand by their convictions and vote out members of Congress, even those they supported in 2010, it those new members do not achieve results, and not just lip service, consistent with the Party's agenda.


You miss the point of the Tea Party completely. Other factors come into play than the total number of wins. This is a work in progress and it hasn't played out yet.

But purely statically, the National Review did an analysis by the numbers and showed that the number of conservative voters between the '06 & '10 elections increased by 19%. Without the Tea Party these people would have stayed home again.

My "or what" analysis would have been apx. half the GOP pickups or less if the Tea Party hadn't started.


@Lapidus, your proposed contra-factual intrigues me: "Put Hillary Clinton in place of Barack..". One imagines that, instead of the current meme, that the Democrats have been following the Pelosi Agenda, there would be no question whose agenda was operative in a Clinton administration. It seems likely that the Secretary of State has a better grasp of how to function as a President than the incumbent. Which is a shame.

Tom Maguire

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 ...

Mega-dittos to Kevin M above (1:26 PM), who wonders, as do I, where the counter-factual ends. Is it realistic to think that a bunch of angry middle-class voters would have turned out for mushy moderate Republicans like Castle in Delaware?

Or, if we assume that the anger and energy is gone, why assume that Republican turnout is unaffected?

Larry Jones

Prof. Wolfers, I thought you were going to look at the issue like an economist? All I say is third-rate political commentary with no "analysis" whatsoever. It's no wonder you weren't convinced by your own analysis.

Here's some actual analysis: had the Tea Party not taken over GOP primaries and pushed its own candidates as Republicans, the Tea Party voters either would've stayed home or started a third party.

Why is that? It's because Tea Partiers hate the Republican party more than Democrats do. It was the Republican party that gave us TARP, the Bridge to Nowhere, and runaway spending -- all fiscal disasters that awakened Tea Partiers long before Barack Obama became a household name.

And what would've happened had Tea Partiers created a third party or stayed home? Democrats would've won more seats than they did.



L Frank Morgasn

Tea Party kills Republicans helps democrats