How the Tea Party's Impact May Be Overstated on the District Level

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The tea party movement may be a national story -- particularly after the victory of Christine O'Donnell in Delaware's Senate primary on Sept. 14 -- but the group's sway is much more localized. Some congressional districts are hot spots, others have much less activity.

Which congressional districts are likely to feel the biggest tea party impact this fall? Patchwork Nation mapped tea party strength by district looking at meetings from July through September listed on meetup.com. The data were gathered by the research firm AggData and analyzed by Patchwork Nation consultant Jim Gimpel, a University of Maryland professor, to get a better understanding of where the group's strength lies.

The picture that emerges is a very spotty one.

In about 30 percent of the congressional districts -- about 130 of them -- there was not a single tea party meetup in that time period. In another 40 districts, however, there were more than 20 meetups in the three-month period. One district, Florida's 14th, had more than 100 meetups listed.

And broken into Patchwork Nation's nine congressional district types a definite pattern emerges. The nation's Booming Growth districts, places that grew dramatically in the past decade, are now seeing the most tea party activity. As we noted in Monday's post, those places are also experiencing high foreclosure rates -- a key part of the country's larger unsettled economic state.

The Power of The Party

A lot of the talk about the tea party has centered on voter enthusiasm. Love the tea party movement or hate it, it seems to have stirred voters this election year -- and people tuned into the process also tend to vote.

That being the case, one would imagine that big tea party districts would also be places where incumbents, especially Democratic incumbents, would be endangered. Yet, at least at the very top, that doesn't seem to be the case.

The top 10 tea party meetup districts for the last three months are evenly split between Democratic and Republican candidates -- five each -- and there is only one that looks to be a truly contested race when one looks at political analyst Charlie Cook's latest breakdown. Democratic Rep. John Boccieri's race in Ohio's 16 district is rated a tossup.

Congressional District House Member (Party) Tea Parties July - Sept.
Fla.-14 Connie Mack (R) 121
Calif.-45 Mary Bono Mack (R) 84
Washington, D.C. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) 74
Ore.-3 Earl Blumenauer (D) 56
N.Y.-22 Maurice D. Hinchey (D) 48
Fla.-10 C. W. Bill Young (R) 48
Ariz.-6/td> Jeff Flake (R) 46
N.C.-7 Mike McIntyre (D) 45
Ind.-3 Mark E. Souder (R) 43
Ohio-16 John A. Boccieri (D) 43


In fact, if you drop the list down further and look at the top 20 districts for tea party meetups in the last three months, there is only one more truly competitive district. Cook rates Rep. Alan Grayson's race in Florida's eighth district as a tossup.

That's only two tight races in the 20 districts where the tea party has been most active of late.

That doesn't mean the tea party won't affect other races, of course. In statewide races for senator and governor, the tea party enthusiasm level in a given district doesn't matter much.

But numbers like those in the chart above suggest that tea party strength alone may not be the indicator of incumbent anger or GOP strength in House races that people believe it to be. "Meetups" are not the only way tea party groups arrange meetings, of course, but they play an important role for many local groups and are useful as a broader measure of enthusiasm.

Hard Times, More Anger

What we can say looking at the tea party meetups is that a few types of congressional districts in the Patchwork Nation breakdown are seeing a disproportionate share of tea party enthusiasm.

Congressional District Types Tea Party Events per 100,000 Households
Established Wealth 2.08
The Shifting Middle 2.51
Booming Growth 4.00
New Diversity 2.44
Young Exurbs 2.44
Old Diversity 0.66
Wired and Educated 3.05
Christian Conservative 1.47
Small Town America 2.08


The districts we call Booming Growth stand far above the rest of the districts in our breakdown. Those districts are based in places that have been hit very hard by the housing crunch, as we noted in our post on foreclosures, and are based in states like Florida, Colorado, Nevada and Arizona.

These districts are fairly evenly split between Democratic and Republican leanings, but their vote has trended Democratic since 2006. They may be in for a swing back in 2010 and in them, at least, it seems the tea party is positioned play a big role.

One-fifth of the 56 Booming Growth districts are rated as tossups by Cook. But looking at the districts where tea party enthusiasm is second-most high -- the 35 Wired and Educated districts -- only four are rated as tossups. Even a mobilized tea party membership probably won't make much difference in these districts, which lean solidly Democratic.

Also of note in Patchwork Nation's district type breakdown, the relatively light interest in tea party meetups coming from districts we call Christian Conservative: middle-income districts with high numbers of evangelicals. This suggests that the tea party movement has had difficulties making inroads in more socially conservative places that focus more on so-called values issues than on fiscal concerns.

Those districts may swing as well in November. The last few elections have led them to the left and Democrats in those places are not a natural fit. But these numbers suggest that any swing should not necessarily be read as a "tea party vote."

Six Weeks To Go

If there is a larger point in all these numbers it may be that there is no single easy storyline to explain what's happening in the electorate. Survey after survey shows voters are angry -- particularly about the economy -- but that doesn't necessarily translate into a story about the tea party movement.

There is still more than a month until the actual midterm vote, of course. And that is a lifetime in politics. But, at the moment, the tea party movement's impact on the congressional races may be overstated.