The controversy over the IRS’s harassment of conservative groups continues. President Obama’s team continues to blame low-level bureaucrats. Some conservatives suspect a more sinister explanation: that the levers of government were used to attack an existential threat to the president’s 2012 reelection. The president and his party dismiss this as a paranoid fantasy. The evidence, however, is enough to make one believe that targeting Tea Party groups would have been an effective campaign strategy going into the 2012 election cycle.
It is a well-known fact that the Tea Party movement dealt the president his famous “shellacking” in the 2010 mid-term election. Less well-known is the actual number of votes this new movement delivered-and the continuing effects these votes could have had in 2012 had the movement not been de-mobilized by the IRS.
In a new research paper, Andreas Madestam (from Stockholm University), Daniel Shoag and David Yanagizawa-Drott (both from the Harvard Kennedy School), and I set out to find out how much impact the Tea Party had on voter turnout in the 2010 election. We compared areas with high levels of Tea Party activity to otherwise similar areas with low levels of Tea Party activity, using data from the Census Bureau, the FEC, news reports, and a variety of other sources. We found that the effect was huge: the movement brought the Republican Party some 3-6 million additional votes in House races. That is an astonishing boost, given that all Republican House candidates combined received fewer than 45 million votes. It demonstrates conclusively how important the party’s newly energized base was to its landslide victory in those elections, and how worried Democratic strategists must have been about the conservative movement’s momentum.
The Tea Party movement’s huge success was not the result of a few days of work by an elected official or two, but involved activists all over the country who spent the year and a half leading up to the midterm elections volunteering, organizing, donating, and rallying. Much of these grassroots activities were centered around 501(c)4s, which according to our research were an important component of the Tea Party movement and its rise.