The Tea Party movement’s get-out-the-vote operation is built on two slightly contradictory realities: the party is indisputably a grassroots, volunteer-driven movement, and Tea Partiers are working closely with Republican and establishment conservative groups. Their impact on the election will be to help veteran Washington wheeler-dealers such as House Republican leader John Boehner attain power, but they remain a decentralized social movement, with an emphasis on the social.
There is no one Tea Party, but rather a series of regional conservative groups that have formed statewide and national coalitions to coordinate their efforts. Take the Tea Party Patriots. They have only a half-dozen staffers and describe themselves as a platform for connecting local activists rather than a central structure that directs them. Their Web site, teapartypatriots.com, is more like a social network than the public face of a unitary organization. The site has 134,000 registered members. That’s considerably fewer than the much-touted, 13 million-person e-mail list of the Obama campaign, but it’s a group of highly engaged activists. And that doesn’t include the (possibly overlapping) memberships of other national organizations such as Tea Party Nation nor new conservative organizations like Glenn Beck’s 9/12 Project. When you join the Tea Party Patriots, you have the opportunity to join a group in your geographic area or start one if none exists. There are 2,800 groups affiliated with the Tea Party Patriots. Those groups can attract volunteers who are not registered on the site, and on a typical day there could be 20 group meetings listed on the site’s calendar. The meetings serve a wide range of purposes, “anything from studying literature from our Founding Fathers to planning events,” says Rob Gaudet, a national coordinator for Tea Party Patriots.
The Patriots themselves do not endorse candidates, but the local member groups may. The materials that the national organization provides them, though, are focused on broad principles rather than a candidate or party. Patriots have been providing online training in peer-to-peer mobilization, and in-person training to local group leaders. A week and a half ago, 60 of them from across the country gathered in Atlanta. As they went out into the field, they were armed with Tea Party Patriots talking points: fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government, and free markets, says Jenny Beth Martin, a Tea Party Patriots founder and coordinator. Notably absent is any mention of foreign policy or the staunch social conservatism that some Tea Party leaders and candidates espouse.
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One of the distinguishing features of the Tea Party approach is that, while the national Republican and Democratic parties put a narrow focus on swing states and districts, Tea Party groups spring up wherever there is interest. There is some effort by national coordinators to direct resources where they are most needed, but only in collaboration with local volunteers. So when the Tea Party Patriots strike out on their national tour—hitting 30 cities in the ten days before Election Day—some will be in swing areas, and others not, according to Martin. In each city they will hold a rally and then go canvassing and phone-banking with local volunteers. In building an activist infrastructure wherever it may be, rather than focusing exclusively on competitive races, Tea Party activists are mirroring the “50-state strategy” of former Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean—and the approach that worked so well for the Obama campaign.
Thanks to technology, going to a crucial district is less important than it used to be. To phone-bank in a swing district one need no longer appear in person at the campaign office and be handed a sheet of paper with phone numbers and a sales pitch. The whole process is now online, so that a resident of a noncompetitive district can phone-bank in a swing district from his or her home. Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a fiscally conservative political action committee that is working with Tea Party volunteers, is directing phone calls into key districts. “We did about 20,000 calls last week,” says Phil Kerpen, vice president for policy at AFP. “A couple of days have been above 5,000, which is our goal to maintain between now and the election.” (They only count calls when someone picks up.) Callers can log in from anywhere in the world to a system that gives them the names and political profiles of people they will call, and the corresponding talking points.
For a movement whose typical member is a late-middle-aged, employed parent, this convenience is appealing. “You can sign in on the Internet and get numbers, you can use your own phone, and you don’t have to go to some place,” marvels Mark Lloyd, vice chair of the Virginia Tea Party Patriots Federation. “Folks just love it.” But technology’s convenience can be isolating for some, and the social experience of political activism remains central for many Tea Partiers. “We have materials we give them to set up their own local phone-banking sessions,” says Kerpen. “We find that people do better in a group environment. They get discouraged sometimes after making a few calls at home alone.”
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National Tea Party groups that do endorse candidates are sending their supporters directly to those campaigns, rather than acting as an intermediary. Electiondayteaparty.com, a project of the Nationwide Tea Party Coalition, which is a loose collaboration of Tea Party leaders such as Martin, has posted what Christina Botteri, a leader of the coalition, calls “a list of the top 50 grassroots-friendly candidates for the House that need help.” Says Botteri: “It’s fundraising the Tea Party way. You as a contributor decide who you’re going to support.” If you want to volunteer, you can find out how to through the candidate’s Web site.
Tea Party organizers say this is about giving their members autonomy, but it also has the effect of giving candidates, even in a more liberal-leaning district, an incentive to cater to the more extreme, ideological activists in order to attract their donations and volunteer efforts. Before, a Republican in a liberal state—say, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island—could compile a moderate voting record, secure in the certainty that the national Republican Party would continue to help him win reelection because the party is set up to protect incumbents and to help the most electable candidates in each state or district. Under the new paradigm, fervent conservatives from across the country can bolster their preferred candidate in the primary and the general election in a liberal state like Delaware. “Christine O’Donnell raising $4 million means suddenly she’s got a lot of money to pay for voter contact,” explains Soren Dayton, a Republican consultant who worked for the McCain campaign.
By sifting through 435 House races for the most appropriate candidates, and linking individuals directly with those campaigns rather than setting up their own get-out-the-vote operation, electiondayteaparty.com is more like a partisan, election-focused blog than a political party or traditional political action committee. “The Obama for America comparison isn’t really apt,” says Dayton. “The correct comparison is [the Democratic victory in] ’06, not ’08: You have a movement that is pissed off as hell and it highlights certain candidates and races, and the movement is pulling a party in a certain direction. That time it was populist and antiwar; this time it’s conservative. But the formula is the same: opinion leaders channeling candidates to potential supporters through media.” In this model, the Tea Party groups are more of a counterpart to a liberal blog like Daily Kos than to Organizing for America (or OFA, the Democratic grassroots group that inherited the Obama campaign list). All 50 candidates chosen by the Nationwide Tea Party Coalition are Republicans. An electiondayteaparty.com campaign called “Cash for Candidates” was launched last Tuesday, and within 24 hours had brought in an average of $10,000 to the campaigns that reported back to the Nationwide Tea Party coalition. And cash can be turned into votes. “The money,” says Dayton, “is used for more mail, more phone calls, and more pizza for volunteers.”
While there is an apparent similarity to the Obama campaign—the OFA Web site also used social-networking software and linked activists to each other—it came about in a somewhat different manner. OFA was an organization created by political professionals with the specific goal of winning a presidential election. It adopted social networking to harness the grassroots enthusiasm for Obama in service of that goal. And even the activism taking place outside the campaign, such as the Facebook efforts to draft Obama, all started with a focus on the candidate. The Tea Party began with outraged conservative activists finding each other, forming regional groups, and eventually developing organizations, coalitions, and online platforms to coordinate their efforts. “Back when we were all just newbies who met each other on Twitter, we were not effective at all,” recalls Botteri. “We started having little conference calls putting together teams. So we were already talking when Rick Santelli had his rant at the Mercantile Exchange.” Having rallies for general principles, such as the Tax Day Tea Party of 2009, was the next step. Choosing candidates and helping them win was the last.
At the same time, though, the fact that Tea Party activists are overwhelmingly Republican voters means that existing Republican and conservative groups are able to harness their energy. Two of the leading fiscal-conservative organizations, Americans for Prosperity (AFP) and Freedom Works, are working with Tea Party activists on get-out-the-vote operations. Both enjoy larger lists of activists—Freedom Works claims 1 million and AFP 1.6 million—that include many of the same people who were drawn to the Tea Party. “There’s a lot of crossover membership and leadership,” says Rob Jordan, Freedom Works’s vice president for campaigns. “A member of ours is also often a leader in a Tea Party group.” This allows inexperienced Tea Party volunteers to draw on the experience of political insiders from these Beltway organizations. Freedom Works, according to its campaigns director, Brendan Steinhauser, supplies local Tea Party groups with strategic advice—helping them determine where to put their resources—and tactical know-how. “We’ll tell the guys in Ohio which races are tossups; then they know that they should get the people from Miami County in Ohio to go volunteer in Ohio 15 [district],” says Steinhauser. “Most of these people are pretty new to politics,” explains Russ Walker, Freedom Works’s political director. “They haven’t campaigned before. We help them figure out how to get all their yard signs on people’s lawns.”
Given the dispersed nature of all these different groups and their various regional affiliates, it is impossible to add up voter contacts across the movement. How many people will turn out for the rallies held by the Tea Party Patriots and the concurrent national tour of the Tea Party Express? How many will go on to canvass, and how successful will they be at turning those people out? It’s impossible to predict, but this much is certain: in small states and even smaller congressional districts, the numbers do not need to be huge to have an impact. Freedom Works hopes to contact 50,000 West Virginians, and thinks that would be enough to affect the results of the state’s tightly contested Senate election. Tea Partiers can home in on the candidate they respond to, not the wooden mannequin of some professional strategist’s dreams. Form a club with like-minded individuals long before the election, and you’re essentially re-creating the powerful political clubhouse machines of yore. Those strong bonds with one’s political brethren will help everyone push harder as they brave the elements to convince a stranger to vote. “Elections are won on the front porch and the kitchen table,” says Lloyd of the Virginia Tea Party Patriots. “That hasn’t changed.” Enthusiasm goes a long way. Just ask Barack Obama.