JUST three days ago, many pundits were writing the obituary of the Tea Party. The unstoppable rise of Mitt Romney and the hopeless divisions within the conservative field seemed to suggest that the radical grassroots movement had passed away. The movement was over and its supporters were an irrelevance. The Tea Party was dead – long live the Beltway Cocktail Hour!
Then came South Carolina, where religious and fiscal conservatives finally got it together and backed a candidate against Mitt Romney. Exit polls suggest that Newt Gingrich won by appealing to every Tea Party demographic – middle income voters, angry white men, regular church attendees etc. To put it into to perspective, these are the only categories of voter that Mitt Romney won: people with an income greater than $200,000, self-described “moderates” or “liberals”, folks who think religion doesn’t matter in picking a candidate, those who “oppose” the Tea Party.
Gingrich’s victory was assisted by a huge turnout. The record participation of over 600,000 Republicans suggests Tea Party engagement in a way that didn’t occur in Iowa or New Hampshire. Did they come out for Newt or for some other reason? Many of them told pollsters that they thought Gingrich would be a better candidate against Obama than Romney. Gallup’s latest “trial heat” figures certainly seem to suggest that there’s little difference between Newt and Mitt on this score: in a hypothetical general election, they would both take 48 percent to Obama’s 50 percent.
Nevertheless, it's hard to believe that South Carolina was a positive endorsement of Newt Gingrich. The former Speaker still has big negative numbers and has never actually beaten the President in Gallup’s matchups. Part of the problem is that his reputation precedes him. (The best Tweet written during the South Carolina primary was, “Overheard at the Newt victory party: what’s with this bowl of keys?”) Gingrich is a big government conservative with a messy private life. Surely a few philosophical compromises were made by Tea Partiers when they voted for him? Not that compromise is anything to be ashamed of. It suggests maturity.
Discounting Gingrich’s many charms, two factors helped revive the Tea Party spirit in South Carolina. The first was the intervention of Sarah Palin. The world is split 99:1 over whether or not Ms Palin is stupid or a genius. It now looks like the 1 percent might be right. Just as pundits were calling time on the Tea Party, so she seemed to have vanished from politics for good. But her last minute endorsement of Gingrich gave the impression that she tipped the primary in his favour. Although no longer a presidential contender, she is now the next best thing: a kingmaker.
The second condition necessary for a Newt landslide was Mitt Romney. Everything about the man is the antithesis of South Carolina culture: he’s a northern, wealthy, non-WASP centrist. Something that went totally unreported in the media was an email sent out by the Sons of Confederate Veterans group urging Southerners to reject Romney on the basis of his opposition to the flying of the Confederate Stars and Bars flag. In a 2007 debate, he called the flag “divisive” and said that it “shouldn’t be shown” – a perspective that irritates both Southerners and libertarians. The SCV sent footage of that answer to roughly 180,000 members and supporters across the region. The missive might not have been decisive, but it probably helped many undecided Tea Partiers make up their minds.
Far from Romney’s rise representing the death of the Tea Party, it has actually galvanised it and brought it back out into the open. In truth, it never went away. The mainstream media often makes the mistake of presuming that the Tea Party is a classic vanguard-type organisation, with elected leaders, membership lists and headed notepaper. On the contrary: it is an intangible spirit of revolt that ebbs and flows with the political season. Given the Palmetto State’s reputation for rebellion, it is highly appropriate that it resurfaced in South Carolina. We'll see a lot more of it in the weeks to come.