Has the Tea Party's Enthusiasm Crested?

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In an election year where voter anger has been the topic on everyone's minds, the loose confederation of groups and interests known as the Tea Party movement has been a star attraction for political analysts.

Hailed by some as a new populist movement and decried by others as a simple manifestation of the far right of the GOP, the question about the grassroots group was the impact it would have on the midterms.

A Patchwork Nation analysis of meet-ups organized by Tea Party groups suggests the influence of the groups may have crested.

The scheduled meet-ups indicate that the groups remain a force in the 56 districts Patchwork Nation identifies as Booming Growth (those are places that have been hit hard by foreclosures), but interest in the Tea Party groups is more mixed in the rest of the district types. Some have increased as Election Day approaches, others have decreased.

In July and August, there were about 1,980 Tea Party events scheduled around the country, according to an analysis by Jim Gimpel, a University of Maryland professor. In September and October, there are about 2,380 (completed and scheduled). That's a decent bump, but remember that first number came during the dog days of summer and the second comes on the eve of Election Day.

In short, the numbers may not be showing a gathering Tea Party wave - as one might expect as November approaches - but rather a steady stream of anger, and one emanating most forcefully from districts where voters are experiencing the worst of the housing crisis.

What Drives the Tea Party

Counting Tea Party meet-ups is by no means a perfect system for measuring the size and strength of the loosely affiliated groups, but it offers a legitimate measure of voter enthusiasm. And looking at these meet-up numbers seems to suggest a pretty simple recipe for Tea Party passion.

Take a changing or developing neighborhood and sprinkle in a good number of foreclosures.

The three congressional district types with the most Tea Party meet-ups in September and October are the formerly prospering Booming Growth districts, the family-focused Young Exurbs and the heavily Asian New Diversity districts based on the West Coast.

Those district types are scheduled to hold more than two Tea Party events for every 100,000 people in them. They also all had more than 23 foreclosures per 1,000 homes between January and July.

What's the significance of those statistics? A large part of the Tea Party movement's motivation is anger - anger over government spending, anger over perceived government failures - and in these places, there simply is more to be angry about.

Remember, foreclosures are indicative of other problems in the housing market such as falling home values and people "upside down" in their homes (owing more on their mortgages than their homes are currently worth). Many people in these places are not only seeing foreclosure signs around their towns, they find themselves unable to move to different locales, for fear of the financial hit they will have to take if they sell.

This is something we saw up close this summer when we visited Eagle, Colo., which sits in the state's 2nd District, a Booming Growth district. Voter after voter there told us they knew people who were locked into a bad situation or they themselves were locked in one.

But you can also see the impact on Booming Growth districts in places like Nevada's 3rd District - around Las Vegas - and in the many struggling districts in Florida.

Foreclosures alone do not make for Tea Party hotbeds, of course. As Gimpel notes, exurban and formerly booming locales also share relatively unformed political identities. As new people fill new homes, a place begins to define itself. And for people in many of these districts, the anger associated with the 2010 campaign may end up carrying more formative meaning after this election.

What Kind of Impact?

So if the influence of the Tea Party movement on the 2010 midterms is more about targeted pockets of anger than a broad tidal wave, what will it mean for November?

Well, the tea partiers could have a big impact in those 56 Booming Growth districts and the 36 Young Exurb districts. Both those district types are fairly split between Democrats and Republicans. But for all the noise about the Tea Party, their supporters may not carry as much weight elsewhere.

For instance, there may be pockets of Tea Party enthusiasm in those 33 New Diversity districts, but their impact will likely be very limited - those districts lean heavily Democratic.

Meanwhile, culturally conservative Small Town America and Christian Conservative districts seem to have less Tea Party enthusiasm than other places. Those district types were among the places with the fewest meet-ups in this latest tally: less than one meet-up for every 100,000 people in September and October.

Other more closely divided district types, places like Established Wealth districts and those districts that fall into the broad category we call The Shifting Middle also don't seem especially Tea Party focused.

Of course, the Tea Party energy inside the Republican Party has already had a significant impact on GOP primaries across the country. If Ken Buck in Colorado, Sharron Angle in Nevada, Rand Paul in Kentucky and Marco Rubio in Florida all become U.S. senators, they will have done so by upending the Republican establishment's preferred candidates in their states by riding the Tea Party energy to victory.

The message? The "Tea Party" movement is interesting and new and it has been heavily covered. But it is only a slice of what is defining this election cycle. Voter anger and unhappiness in 2010 reaches far and wide, well beyond the reaches of the Tea Party.