Can GOP motivate Tea Party vote?

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Some newly minted Tea Party activists candidly admit to being slackers in the past, saying that they just weren’t engaged in the process before now, or at least in 2008. They were “minding their own business” or just plain apathetic. Politics was not their cup of tea, they might confess. But events of the recession and actions of the present administration and Congress have moved them to action. 

That’s not the true narrative for all local Tea Party leaders, however. I have looked into the background of some of these grassroots activists and discovered that they are longtime local conservative and anti-tax watchdogs. The only thing different this time around is that the Tea Party storyline makes them seem somehow more relevant and efficacious. The same people were gadflies and Don Quixotes two years ago (and in the decade before that). But now they are giant-killers who will bring down the Barbara Boxers.

I hope this is correct, but cannot get over the feeling that it’s a little risky to place so much dependence on such an unproven political force. We’ve already seen in the primary campaigns that the political effects of Tea Party efforts are uneven. So what’s a candidate to do? Trust the Tea Party to deliver? Or is the trick to help the Tea Partiers get up and do what needs to be done? Can the psychological forces that propel the Tea Party activists be manipulated to ensure that the movement delivers the goods it promises?

Barack Obama and the Democrats faced a comparable situation two years ago. They found themselves depending on a lot of new and young voters who, similarly, had been uninvolved in the past. But they found ways to mobilize this untested faction of their coalition. Not only did these new voters show up at the polls, they also gave money and, most importantly, became evangelists who encouraged their parents and other older voters to support the Obama campaign. The Republicans must engage the Tea Party activists just as Democrats engaged new voters in 2008. It can be done, but this will require a thorough understanding of what makes the typical Tea Party activist tick.

The key to success may be engendering a concept known as communitas, something Wikipedia says is “an intense community spirit, the feeling of great social equality, solidarity and togetherness.” Will Republicans open up their campaigns and invite the Tea Party people into their councils? And will Tea Party activists accept such an invitation?

Sociologists’ ruminations on communitas often involve a transition from a lower to a higher status within an organization. In short, Tea Party activists, particularly those who have spent a lifetime playing the role of gadfly, must be convinced that they are graduating to the level of being a serious political player. This may be a lot harder than it seems. Surely it will be harder than what the Democrats experienced in recruiting new voters in 2008. They were asking affluent and intelligent college kids to join a top rock ‘n’ roll band. How hard could that have been? The Republicans may be asking downstairs people to come upstairs. It’s a completely different thing, but if Republicans can figure out how to do this, the Tea may be sweet.

David Hill has been a Republican pollster since 1984. This cycle he is polling for gubernatorial campaigns in four states.