Stephen Reader covers politics for It's a Free Country, WNYC's interactive politics site. He joined the station in 2010 and has also worked for Studio 360, WNYC's Peabody Award-winning show about art, culture, and creativity.
[Updated at 1:22pm]
The 2010 midterms proved that the Tea Party is a force to be reckoned with—and it's not just Democrats that need to worry.
In their new book Mad as Hell: How the Tea Party Movement is Fundamentally Remaking Our Two-Party System, Doug Schoen and Scott Rasmussen look at how Tea Party supporters, currently helping candidates with an "R" next to their name get elected, may cut their ties to a major party and strike out on their own. With the movement's momentum, they argue such a split could finally give America a popular, viable third party. Doug Schoen isn't quite ready to predict that will happen, but he's not going to dismiss the idea either.
Who can really tell? We live in volatile times with uncertain moods, and one thing I'd say is that the Tea Party movement is not wedded to Republicans. Could they break away? It's certainly possible. Would they be a strong force on their own? I don’t rule anything out.
Backing up the idea, said Scott Rasmussen, are poll numbers.
78 percent of Republican primary voters have a favorable opinion of the Tea Party. At the same time, 72 percent of them say that Republican Congressional leaders are out of touch with the party’s base.
The support is definitely there. But is it for real, and is it sustainable? Some Tea Party candidates who were big surprises during the Republican primaries seriously floundered when they got to the big show. Carl Paladino, Christine O'Donnell, and Sharron Angle didn't really do the movement any favors. However, Doug Schoen pointed out that it was those candidates' personalities, not their platforms, that drew the most negative attention.
To me the problem of [these candidates] is not a problem of a political movement. This is the problem of individual candidates who were nominated in spite of, not because of, whatever their weaknesses may have been…I don't believe that so-called "fringe elements" are all that pervasive or important, but would the Tea Party have been more successful if they had candidates more like Marco Rubio running in Nevada, New York, and Delaware? I'm sure that would have been the case.
While the more colorful, more controversial candidates will always prick the media's ears, Rasmussen and Schoen said that the Tea Party's real efficacy comes from reaching people on the strength of their rhetoric. Said Scott Rasmussen:
The Tea Party is strongest when it taps into concerns shared by a number of Americans, and that includes fiscal policy in a big way. So the more Tea Party members, the more Tea Party activists can find ways to focus on those things that unite them with the majority around the country, the stronger they’ll be. The more they get decided on fringe issues, the less effective they’ll be.
The prospect of a third party in American politics is exciting, but for many voters the Tea Party is not the option they've been craving. What stymies some voters on both sides of the aisle is that the movement seeks to elect candidates who have no experience in government, who may be "unqualified." But that's a rallying cry for the movement as well: one man's trash is another's treasure, and "experience" is a corrupting force in the Tea Party vocabulary. That's a very popular sentiment, as Rasmussen explained, and yet another reason not to rule out that the third party will be the Tea Party.
I think it's easy to suggest these people aren't qualified, but nearly 8 out of 10 Americans trust their own judgment more than any member of Congress on economic issues…There is a question of whether some of these people are qualified or not, but most in the Tea Party—and a large majority of American voters—doubt that many of the existing elected politicians are qualified for the job.
What do you think? Is it time for Democratic-Republican binary to end? What's the future of American party system? Let us know!