Tea party follower Ann Kalifrath listens to Mitt Romney speak at a Tea Party… (Jim Cole / AP Photo )
A year ago, the tea party movement looked like an irresistible wave sweeping through the Republican Party. Anyone who hoped to win this year's GOP presidential nomination, it seemed, would need to embrace tea party activists' stringent demands for smaller government, lower taxes and deep cuts in spending.
But in Tuesday's Iowa caucuses, the three candidates who hewed closest to the tea party line — Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich — sank straight to the bottom of the pack. Instead of choosing a rigorous fiscal conservative such as Bachmann, Perry or Gingrich, Iowa Republicans divided most of their votes between Mitt Romney, the tea party's least favorite candidate, and Rick Santorum, a social conservative who voted for big spending and defended congressional earmarks when he was in the Senate. Ron Paul, at third place, was the most successful of the tea party-friendly candidates, but the acerbic libertarian's claim to 22% of Tuesday's caucus votes could well turn out to be his high-water mark for the year.
In national polls too the tea party's allure has been fading. A study in November by the Pew Research Center found that 27% of the public said they disagreed with the tea party, while only 20% said they agreed — a striking reversal from a year earlier, when 27% agreed. The poll's authors said it appeared that voters increasingly blamed the tea party and its champions in Congress for the gridlock in negotiations over the federal budget.
So does this mean the tea party over? Not exactly.
The tea party has changed the political landscape in ways that are likely to last for a while. Every Republican candidate, for example, at least claims now to be a fiscal conservative. Even Romney, whose greatest achievement as a governor was mandatory health insurance, now says he supports a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution that would cap spending at 20% of gross domestic product, a deep cut below the current 24%. Santorum goes even further, proposing a spending cap of 18%.
And it's not really the tea party's fault that its favorite candidates, Bachmann and Perry, stumbled. Bachmann, who founded the Tea Party Caucus in the House, never found a way to turn that into a qualification to be president. Perry, whose resume was strong on paper, proved so inept in televised debates that he couldn't remember which Cabinet agencies he wanted to abolish.
According to the "entrance poll" sponsored by news organizations, about a third of those who voted in the GOP caucus pronounced themselves "strong supporters" of the tea party; of those, 30% said they voted for Santorum, 17% for Gingrich and 16% for Paul.
Romney tied with Perry for fourth place among strong tea party adherents. In fact, it was Romney's first-place showing among non-tea partyers that made him the statewide winner — by just eight votes.
That divide mirrors the fragmentation of the tea party itself. It's always included a mix of libertarians (Paul voters), social conservatives (Santorum voters) and older Reagan conservatives (many of whom were Gingrich voters).
That's the biggest reason, when real votes were being counted, that Romney came out on top of the Republican field: His opponents split the remaining votes so many ways.
It's noteworthy too that although nearly half of the GOP caucus-goers labeled themselves "very conservative," only about a third were willing to call themselves "strong supporters" of the tea party.
As the campaign moves to New Hampshire and South Carolina, that persistent division may be Romney's biggest advantage. In many states, a majority of GOP voters still yearns for a candidate who isn't named Romney. But if they can't settle on a single alternative, Romney is likely to win the nomination the same way he won (or at least squeaked by) in Iowa.
At this point, Santorum appears to stand the best chance of uniting the not-Romney camp, if only because of his strong showing in Iowa, which will give him a significant bump. But the former Pennsylvania senator hasn't raised as much money as his rivals, hasn't built an organization big enough to manage a multi-state campaign and — perhaps most important — hasn't weathered the level of national scrutiny that brought down Gingrich, Bachmann and Perry.
And even before Iowa, some conservative activists complained that Santorum wasn't ideologically reliable. As a senator, they noted, he supported dozens of earmarks and voted for the expensive Medicare prescription drug entitlement (a mortal sin in tea party eyes) in 2003. "Rick Santorum was part of the problem in Washington," wrote Erick Erickson, author of the RedState blog. "The voters in Pennsylvania rejected him in 2006 because of his and the Republicans' profligate ways."
So in an election year that might have cemented tea party dominance of the GOP, the top two candidates come from other wings of the party: Santorum, a quintessential social conservative, and Romney, a quintessential establishment man.
And the most likely nominee is still the candidate many tea partyers like the least: Romney.