In 2009, Tea Party rallies raged in cities across the country. The movement put its stamp on the 2010 midterm elections when the Republicans retook the House of Representatives.
So far, throughout the GOP primary contest, every major candidate at some point has tried to frame himself or herself as the Tea Party's standard-bearer, but what's most striking about the movement this election has been its notable absence.
Dawn Wildman, national coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots, tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz that the Tea Party is still out there working.
"We're all feverishly working and doing things, I just don't think the focus is on us," Wildman says, "it's all about this presidential election."
Wildman says right now their focus is on smaller races and local elections: school boards, supervisors and city councilmen.
Chris Littleton, founder of the Cincinnati Tea Party and co-founder of the Ohio Liberty Council, was recently asked about the state of the Tea Party.
"I said the Tea Party is dead," Littleton tells NPR's Raz. "What I mean by that is that [the] protest idea is gone, and I say that's a good thing."
The people who were leading the charge of the Tea Party protests, among whose ranks Littleton counts himself among, have left that behind, he says. They've now moved away from protesting and toward a more "tactical precision" way of operating, he says.
"Something very new and very different is there," he says. "But the nomenclature that has become 'Tea Party' as a pop culture name, I don't think that's around anymore."
Both Wildman and Littleton say there isn't a perfect "Tea Party candidate," but if Mitt Romney ends up being the GOP nominee, Wildman says she'll vote for him, but with some reservations.
"Romney, to me, looks like a lateral shift in power," she says. "He doesn't seem to have a really strong conviction; he seems to change as the wind blows."
Littleton, however, says he might end up just sitting this election out or voting for a third-party candidate.
"I want Obama out of office, of course; I'm just not thrilled with any of the candidates at this time so it's difficult to get behind any of them," he says.
A Cresting Wave
Like Wildman and Littleton, many other Tea Party activists acknowledge that the days of the big rallies might be on hold, but that their ideas are now very much front and center.
New York Times reporter Kate Zernike, who wrote a book about the Tea Party called Boiling Mad, tells Raz that the movement might have reached its peak of power in 2010.
"The Tea Party was always going to be a phenomenon of a midterm election," Zernike says.
Midterm elections tend to have a smaller voter turnout and attract older white voters, she says, which by and large made up the Tea Party. So in a midterm election, a group like the Tea Party can, and did, have a greater impact.
What's happening now, she says, is that people are starting to get an idea of what a Tea Party Congress looks like and what the Tea Party stood for.
"They stood for obstruction [and] they stood for not compromising," she says. "When pollsters went back to Tea Party voters and said, 'Is this what you want?' They said, 'No, we want people to compromise.'"
Despite this "buyer's remorse" of Tea Party candidates, as Zernike calls it, the GOP presidential field continues to court the Tea Party and even self-label as the "Tea Party candidate."
Zernike says they are still hoping to ride the wave of enthusiasm the Tea Party built so quickly for Republicans in 2010, and that was previously held by Democrats in 2008.
"So there's this sense that you have to pay fealty to the Tea Party," she says, "but again, I don't think people are really quite certain [anymore] what the Tea Party means."
GUY RAZ, HOST:
From NPR News, it's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.
Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was here in Washington last night. She came to speak at an annual conservative political gathering known as CPAC, and as she has the power to do, Palin brought the house down.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
SARAH PALIN: This November, we're going to take back the Senate, and we're going to fortify the House. Be aware, Washington. Tea Party patriots are alive and well.
RAZ: So far, throughout the GOP primary contest, every major candidate at some point has tried to frame him or herself as the Tea Party's standard bearer.
GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: I am grateful to what the Tea Party movement has done for this country.
MITT ROMNEY: So if the Tea Party is for keeping government small and spending down and helping us create jobs, then, hey, I'm for the Tea Party.
NEWT GINGRICH: All the things the Tea Party movement is doing, which are constructive...
RICK SANTORUM: I think the Tea Party people are going to realize we need a clean, clear contrast.
ROMNEY: I believe in a lot of what the Tea Party believes in.
RAZ: The Tea Party put its stamp on the 2010 midterm election when the Republicans retook the House.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Whoever wants some tea. Apparently, a lot of people.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The winner is the Tea Party.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: These people are literally changing the face of a party.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
RAZ: But what's been most striking about the movement this election has been, it's absence. And that's our cover story today: Where's the Tea Party?
Chris Littleton is the founder of the Cincinnati Tea Party and cofounder of the Ohio Liberty Council. A reporter recently asked him about the state of the Tea Party.
CHRIS LITTLETON: And I said the Tea Party is dead. And what I mean by that is that that protest idea is gone. It's long gone. And I say that's a good thing because the people who were leading those things - and I was one of those individuals - we understood that we had to leave that behind in its entirety. Protesting is not going to get you anywhere. Sharing your voice isn't going to get you anywhere, but tactical precision. Well, that's kind of what ended up happening. And something very new, very different is there, but the nomenclature that has become Tea Party as a pop culture name, I don't think that's around anymore.
RAZ: You've been quoted as saying the most popular Tea Party candidate is not Romney.
RAZ: Who is the not Romney?
LITTLETON: Well, that's - and that's the undefined, and no one knows the answer to that question. The average Tea Party person on the street would rather have Romney than Obama, but every one of those people also understands that's still not fixing our problem.
RAZ: But if the choice for you is between Romney and President Obama, you will vote for?
LITTLETON: I personally - and this is me speaking for me and no other organization - I personally will not vote.
RAZ: You'll just sit it out.
LITTLETON: Yeah, or I'll vote for, you know, a third-party candidate or sit out. I want Obama out of office, of course. I just not thrilled with any of the candidates at this exact moment in time, so it's difficult to get behind any of them.
RAZ: That's Chris Littleton. He's the founder of the Cincinnati Tea Party and the cofounder of the Ohio Liberty Council. Chris Littleton, thanks.
LITTLETON: Thanks so much.
RAZ: Now, many Tea Party activists acknowledge that the days of the big rallies may be on hold, but that their ideas are now very much front and center, especially on the local level. Here's Dawn Wildman. She is the national coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots.
DAWN WILDMAN: There are people all over the country that are still working on bringing statesmen up through the farm team, you know, starting off with the political school boards and your supervisors and your city councils and your state government. You know, we're all feverishly working and doing things. I just don't think the focus is on us because it's so much about this presidential election.
RAZ: Well, here's a thing. I mean, the focus, you say, isn't on you because it's about the presidential election, but you would think, I - and maybe - and correct me if I'm wrong - that your focus would be on the presidential election.
WILDMAN: Not really. I mean, and just from my own personal perspective, let me tell you why. (Unintelligible) have a dog in this race, and I think most of us understand there isn't this perfect conservative candidate. And I think people are really doing a lot more investigating, researching into these candidates than they've ever done before. People are really looking at everything.
RAZ: I'm going to put you on the spot, and I know that you're not going to like this question, but let me ask you about Mitt Romney. OK? I'm not going to say he's the presumed nominee, but let's just say for a moment that he was the guy who was nominated by the Republican Party. Would you vote for him?
RAZ: You would. So you - if he was the guy that the party settled on, you'd be OK with that.
WILDMAN: But here's also the caveat. Romney, to me, looks like it's a lateral shift in power, frankly.
RAZ: What do you mean?
WILDMAN: Well, I think he is, you know, have done some of the same types of policies in Massachusetts with Romneycare that the current president and administration has backed, and he doesn't seem to have a really strong conviction. He seems to change as the wind blows, and that's a lot like every politician we come across. And that means that very little changes. We better hope that we start bringing some of those people into Congress and into the Senate who really are conservative and really care about the fiscal health of the country.
RAZ: It sounds like what you're saying is that Mitt Romney is a less bad version of President Obama.
WILDMAN: Yeah. That's exactly what I'm saying.
RAZ: That's Dawn Wildman. She's a national coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots. Dawn, thanks so much.
WILDMAN: Thanks, Guy.
RAZ: But has the Tea Party already passed its prime? New York Times reporter Kate Zernike wrote a book about the Tea Party. It's called "Boiling Mad." And she says the movement may have reached its peak of power in 2010.
KATE ZERNIKE: The Tea Party was always going to be a phenomenon of a midterm election because midterm elections, as we know, have a smaller voter turnout. They tend to attract people who are older and white, which - those are the people who, by and large, made up the Tea Party. So midterm elections were sort of made for the Tea Party. And when you have smaller turnout, a small group like the Tea Party can have more of an influence.
But the other thing is, in many ways, the Tea Party sort of overreach after the 2010 elections. They elected people to Congress. And a lot of people, you know, at the time, four in 10 voters who went to the polls said they were Tea Party supporters, but the people who went to the polls and described themselves as Tea Party supporters really didn't know what the Tea Party stood for.
So the Tea Party benefited in 2010 from people not really knowing much about it. Well, so what happens after the election is people started finding out what the Tea Party was going to look like because we had people in Congress who represented the Tea Party. And what did they stand for? They stood for obstruction. They stood for not compromising. And when pollsters went back to Tea Party voters and said: Is this what you want? They said: No. We want people to compromise.
So I think there was a little bit of buyer's remorse from people who considered themselves Tea Party supporters in 2010. After that, they said: No. In fact, we don't like the Tea Party anymore.
RAZ: OK. So if, as you say, the Tea Party was always going to be a midterm election phenomenon, why are the GOP nominees vying for Tea Party support, calling themselves the Tea Party candidate? I mean, every single candidate has said that to some extent.
ZERNIKE: Well, to a certain degree, I think that they gave the Tea Party more power than it really had. Remember, how quickly the Tea Party came out of the blue?
ZERNIKE: In 2008, the enthusiasm gap very much benefited the Democrats, and the Republicans were really thinking we're going to be in the wilderness for a long time because this just doesn't look good for us. What the Tea Party did, and quite suddenly, was flip the enthusiasm gap so that the enthusiasm was all on the Republican side. So what candidate wouldn't look at that and say, gee, I want - you know, I need me a piece of this.
So there's this sense that you have to pay fealty to the Tea Party. But again, I don't think people are really quite certain about what the Tea Party means. So, you know, I'm sure Rick Santorum considers himself a Tea Party candidate. And certainly, there are people in the Tea Party who care very much about social conservative issues, but it's not sort of the Tea Party vote as we've known it. It's proved to be more of the old conservative evangelical vote.
RAZ: That's Kate Zernike. She's a national correspondent for The New York Times and author of a book on the Tea Party called "Boiling Mad." Kate, thanks so much.
ZERNIKE: Thank you.
RAZ: Now, last night at that CPAC convention I mentioned earlier, Sarah Palin repeated an argument many Republicans have made: a long drawn-out primary battle will actually be good for the eventual GOP nominee. But has this primary fight been uglier than previous ones? So ugly, it could actually hurt the nominee.
I asked Lara Brown, assistant professor of political science at Villanova University to think back to a primary as dirty as this one's been.
LARA BROWN: I think my favorite one to usually talk about is the 1976 primary with...
RAZ: Reagan versus Ford.
BROWN: ...Reagan versus Ford. You know, Ronald Reagan is sort of famous for talking about the 11th Commandment and not going after Republicans, and yet he basically talked about how, since Kissinger had been running sort of the country's foreign policy as secretary of State, that America had declined. So for a Republican to attack another Republican in a way to allege that he was being unpatriotic or un-American is highly unlikely in today's moment.
RAZ: He weakened Ford?
BROWN: I think he did.
RAZ: So you do not think that this current GOP presidential primary is any dirtier than previous ones?
BROWN: No. I mean, you can go back to sort of Carter and Kennedy in 1980, and Teddy Kennedy is sort of out there without even an answer as to why he's running and yet he's decided that for whatever reason, he is better than the person who's holding the Oval Office. And Carter immediately responded. He said I'll whip his ass. And that race lasted all the way to the convention.
RAZ: All the way. Yeah.
BROWN: So this is the other piece that I would say about the race we're in right now. It's going to depend on whether or not Gingrich is going to stand by his pledge to go all the way to the convention.
RAZ: OK. This is what I've been hearing from GOP analysts for the past few months, that a long and drawn-out primary campaign will be good for the eventual nominee if it is, say, Mitt Romney because he'll get battered, he'll get bruised now, but he emerges stronger for the general election. Do you think that's the case?
BROWN: To be honest, this issue about divisive primaries is a - it's a much more nuanced and complicated issue. A lot has to do with what type of race it is and also whether or not the state of the parties are really reflective of the divisiveness or not. So, for instance, it's fine for both Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich to go at one another if they aren't fundamentally about factional coalitions within the parties who are never going to reunite.
So, do I think that this is going to be a nasty race? Yes. I think this is really going to be that. I also think that when you look at the current issues that are in play at the moment, we appear to be setting up a new culture war. Most people have thought this election was going to be about the economy, but I think when you take a look at both sort of Rick Santorum's campaign and you look at the White House's new decision around the birth control, I believe that what is going on is that both parties are moving this election away from economic issues and toward the culture issues, which will drive out their bases.
RAZ: That's Lara Brown, assistant professor of political science at Villanova in Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.