The Media's Tea Party

[ Posted Tuesday, July 6th, 2010 – 16:58 UTC ]

The Tea Party movement could possibly be generalized as a group of people who are proud of (and sometimes revel in) being impossible to generalize. This, of course, doesn't stop the media from trying. In today's sad state of American journalism, everything's got to have a simplistic narrative that fits within a 15-second soundbite, at the very maximum. Nuances and subtleties are out. Strong statements beginning with phrases like: "The Tea Partiers are..." (or "...believe...", or " a group...") are what is in. But even given this reduction in critical thinking, what's amazing is how wrong the media has gotten the Tea Partiers (or, at the least, a goodly portion of them).

But maybe, just maybe, the clouds are beginning to clear. Outside of Fox News, at least. A recent blog on the Washington Post site reports that -- whoops -- the media's image of the Tea Partiers as being wildly independent of traditional politics is actually wrong.

From Chris Cillizza's blog "The Fix" today:

The scads of media coverage about the burgeoning "tea party" effort has focused heavily on the idea that those who identify themselves as part of the movement are political free agents -- dismissive of both parties and Washington in general.

New data out of Gallup suggests that premise isn't right, as nearly seven in 10 tea party supporters describe themselves as "conservative Republicans."

All told, nearly 80 percent of tea party supporters describe themselves as Republicans, while 15 percent say they are Democrats and just six percent are, in their own minds, "pure independents."

The article goes on to quote a Gallup pollster:

"[The Tea Partiers'] similar ideological makeup and views suggest that the Tea Party movement is more a rebranding of core Republicanism than a new or distinct entity on the American political scene," Gallup Poll director Frank Newport wrote in an analysis of the results."

And it closes with:

But, in the fall campaign, when faced with a choice not between two Republicans but between a Republican and a Democrat, the Gallup data seem to suggest that the tea party crowd will opt for the GOP candidates in large numbers.

Why? Because they are, at heart, Republicans -- only by a different name at the moment. Or, as, Newport puts it: "Republican leaders who worry about the Tea Party's impact on their races may in fact (and more simply) be defined as largely worrying about their party's core base."

Well, some of us have been saying this for a long time, but it's nice to see some solid polling to back the suspicion up -- and it's even nicer to see the mainstream media admitting how wrong they've been getting things. Perhaps the trend will even continue, who knows?

Another development between the media (or perhaps, the medium of television itself) and the Tea Partiers is the fact that corporate America seems to have discovered them and is now targeting their demographic. From another article in the Washington Post today:

In the ad, a line of British redcoats kneel in the field, muskets raised, waiting to gun down the approaching Colonial insurgents. A lonely violin plays in the background. It's a perfect election-year spot for our time. Any second now, the candidate will appear to wax patriotic, pay tribute to the Founders and decry the current direction of the nation.

Only this is no campaign ad, which becomes very apparent when a Dodge Challenger suddenly comes barreling out of the trees, kicking up dust, with a humungous American flag sticking out the window and Gen. Washington behind the wheel. The redcoats scatter like terrified mice. "Here's a couple of things America got right," the tough-guy narrator says. "Cars -- and freedom."

Has Chrysler gone tea party?

Sort of. There's nothing new about patriotic commercials, especially near the Fourth of July. But Dodge's "Freedom" ad is a little different, with its direct appeal to the rebellious themes that define the "tea party" movement. Marketing consultants say the ad is one indication that the movement's anger and energy have become part of the cultural conversation, making it a natural target for admakers.

As the article goes on to explain, the car company has more than a slight interest in buttering up the Tea Party folks, since they did take a few billion dollars as a "bailout," which doesn't exactly endear them to the Tea Partiers. So there might be more (or less) to this story than initially appears. And they're right to point out that it is Fourth of July season, when red-white-and-blue themed advertising is pretty much everywhere you look.

But, even if the article is right about a new trend of advertising geared toward Tea Partiers, this has risks for corporations who (unlike political parties) want advertising that doesn't annoy certain demographic sections of the public. The article points out:

The trick for corporations and advertisers is to tap into people's generally angry mood without too narrowly targeting one side of the political spectrum in a way that could... anger them.

"You have to be careful," said John McLaughlin, a Republican pollster who also conducts research for corporate clients. "If you segment things by party, then you're just cutting off a whole segment of the market."

While these two stories aren't really related, they are similar in one sense at least: the fact that the Tea Partiers are getting more serious attention from pollsters, the media, and corporate America.

And why shouldn't they? After all, even if they do turn out to be nothing more than a rebranded core of the Republican Party, you have to at least tip your (tricornered) hat to them in one respect -- so far, it has been a fairly successful rebranding. They have a name (after a misstep with "teabaggers," which they quickly disavowed when they found out the other uses of the term) which is concise and easy to remember. A good brand, in other words. They haven't exactly mastered coming up with a rallying slogan, but they have had great success in made-for-video political theater, with all the Minutemen and Founding Fathers garb at their rallies. They've glommed onto imagery that we all get taught to be proud of as schoolchildren, which must surely make Madison Avenue sit up and take notice, at the very least.

The core of the Republican Party was sorely in need of a rebranding. The end of the Bush era was so dismal that Republicans started campaigning without ever mentioning what party they belonged to. But as the memories of Bush fade, the Tea Partiers hope to put a shiny new face on what used to be called the Libertarian wing of the Republican Party, along with some grassroots (and fake grassroots) support from other core factions of the Republican Party.

The Libertarians aren't exactly comfortable with this, it should be mentioned. They prefer to see themselves as truly independent of either party. But, come voting day, this largely turns out to be a tiny fraction of people, numerically. Because when faced with the Republican-versus-Democrat dichotomy inherent in our two-party system, most of the Tea Partiers are going to show their true colors as nothing more than an energized Republican Party base. Only in three-party races (such as Florida's senate race) will it truly come down to base-Republicans-versus-Tea-Partiers. But a few three-way races here and there will only be noticed by the wonkiest of the media -- most will instead be searching for that easy narrative. And the easy call on the Tea Partiers is going to be exactly what Cillizza just pointed out -- except for a few die-hards who vote for hopeless third-party candidacies, they are really nothing more than the Republican base, when it comes down to pulling the voting booth lever.


-- Chris Weigant

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


5 Comments on “The Media's Tea Party”

  1. [1] 
    akadjian wrote:

    Rebranding is an interesting way of thinking about this. Because if there's anything conservatives have been good about doing, it's establishing a brand.

    What's too early to tell though is how this brand is going to work with or compete against the Republican party brand.

    It seems like the brand has a lot of draw in primaries where the base votes most. Whether this holds true in larger elections is another story.

    I think what works in the Tea Party favor at the moment is that they have no past history of governing. Everything about them appears shiny and new and this is appealing to the anti-incumbent crowd.

    A couple thoughts on a Wednesday morning ...

  2. [2] 
    Michale wrote:

    Seems to me that we are all in agreement.

    Democrats are gonna take a thumpin' this year....

    Mainly because of reasons like this:


  3. [3] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    David -

    That's going to be the most interesting thing to watch, over the next few months. Will the TP tail wag the GOP dog, or will it be the other way 'round?


  4. [4] 
    teapartier wrote:

    We tried to find Democrats who were fiscal conservatives so we could claim to be open minded about what party to endorse, but we couldn't find any. Even guys like Frank Kratovil who voted against the health care bill, voted FOR the stimulus, extensions in the first time homebuyer b.s., etc...

    At this point, until the Tea Party gets a larger following, we have to be content with effecting Republican primary races to get the more fiscally conservative candidate nominated.


  5. [5] 
    Chris1962 wrote:

    >>>They haven't exactly mastered coming up with a rallying slogan, but they have had great success in made-for-video political theater, with all the Minutemen and Founding Fathers garb at their rallies.>>>

    ROFL! I'll tell ya, I'm seriously thinking about joining a Tea Party just for the wardrobe. I utterly love it. Seriously eyeing this baby:

    This was a great post, Chris. The media and pollsters are never gonna figure the Tea Partiers out. I think Gallup has already identified them; Frank Newport just hasn't realized it yet:

    If the Tea Partiers aren't simply part of this "traditionalist" group, I'll eat my soon-to-be-purchased tricorne hat. The fact that this group is a 53% majority explains why the Tea Partiers are getting their candidates into races, IMO.

    Here's another misread that the media and pollsters are forever doing: "...the Gallup data seem to suggest that the tea party crowd will opt for the GOP candidates in large numbers. Why? Because they are, at heart, Republicans -- only by a different name at the moment...."

    No, they are, at heart, CONSERVATIVES. Conservatives and Republicans are not the same animal. Conservatives exist within every political group: Republicans, Dems, Indies, Libertarians.

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