Three days ahead of the Iowa caucus, the tea party as any kind of solid voting bloc is practically nowhere to be found.
Instead, Rick Santorum, a traditional Christian conservative, is on the rise. And Ron Paul? Although an intellectual keystone of the broader tea party movement that rose to protest government bailouts in 2009, he has consistently trailed far behind as a tea party favorite, suggesting his newfound appeal lies elsewhere. Rick Perry? Michele Bachmann? Herman Cain? According to polls at least: tested, considered, discarded.
A year ago, the tea party coalesced into a ballot box force that helped Republicans regain the House of Representatives while at the same time, as Sen. Dick Lugar (R) of Indiana has charged, undermining a Republican shot at grabbing the Senate. At the time, many tea partiers renewed their aim at President Obama, their undisputed public enemy number one.
But oh so much has happened since then. And here on the eve of Republican nominating contests, the tea party savior never quite made it to the ball, forcing the amorphous bloc of conservatives, gun owners, libertarians, evangelicals, and even disgruntled Blue Dog Democrats to break across more traditional lines, leaving no clear front runner and the prospect of backing a more establishment candidate like Mitt Romney closer at hand.
“2012 was supposed to be the year the Tea Party picked a Republican presidential candidate,” writes the American Spectator's Andrew Cline. “It was supposed to be this great, historic opportunity for conservatives to finally get a nominee without compromising. But the two candidates who would probably be judged the most pure of all [Perry and Bachmann] could be days away from seeing their campaigns ended, and the two candidates who are seen as having strayed the most from the party line over the years [Gingrich and Romney] are leading nationally.”
For his part, the Wall Street Journal's Daniel Henninger hardly mentioned the tea party in a recent piece on the “Ron Paul Vote.” He mostly referred to Paul's gains from the polling basement of the race to a potential Iowa winner as the Republican “protest vote” that has whipped back and forth like a threatened snake as voters tested each candidate.
For the man who received so much of the tea party's ire – Barack Obama – the likely failure of the tea party to procure a candidate counts as a victory over a contingent of Americans he only occasionally has addressed by name. More broadly, it speaks to the polling reality that even as the tea party's name recognition has grown, it's likability quotient has dropped, largely thanks to Congressional standoffs taken ostensibly on principle – payroll tax cut, debt limit – that came off to many Americans looking as bull-headed, obstructionist, and counterproductive.
So, what happened?
One reason for the absence of a tea party nominee, as evidenced in a series of interviews by the Monitor, is that many tea party activists have already withdrawn their sights from the White House, focusing instead on bolstering representation in the House, gaining more representation in the Senate, and taking over statehouses.
And while tea party activists have thus turned their attention to local GOP precincts to build stronger state coalitions, the presidential race overall has become less localized in this cycle, with Iowa and even New Hampshire's strengths as early predictors on the wane in favor of nationally televised debates and super-PAC advertising.
Given that dynamic and the prospect of facing a Harvard grad like President Obama in the presidential debates, long-time GOP standards and all around brainy guys like Gingrich and Romney have shined while candidates like Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, though no slouches, have flubbed debates and given off a dimmer intellectual glow.
None of which is to say that the elements that produced the tea party won't impact the presidential vote. For one, the prospect of a third-party nominee still hovers over the race, as Donald Trump's recent moves have indicated. How the eventual Republican nominee connects – or doesn't – with the newly activist right will also become critical.
“The 2010 election was the result of a coalition that extends well past the formal tea parties,” Mr. Henninger wrote last week. “It combines Republicans of all stripes, libertarians, independents and worried centrist Democrats. They all are 'fiscally conservative' and socially all over the map. The Republican nominee, however, will be produced by only one part of this fiscal-conservative coalition – the angriest, most politically committed Republicans and libertarians.”
But ultimately, anyone who thought the 20 or so percent of Republicans who identify strongly with the tea party are going to sit out the election if a fiscal purist isn't nominated are likely to be mistaken, says Scott Rasmussen, the conservative pollster, in an interview with Public Radio International.
Counterintuitively, perhaps, to some, Rasmussen's latest poll shows that it's traditional Republicans, not tea party activists, who are more likely to sit out the election if their nominee isn't crowned.
Surprise, surprise, it all comes back to deposing the current occupant of the White House, by any means necessary.
"Ninety percent-plus of [tea partiers] say they're going to vote for whomever the Republicans nominate," Rasmussen said.
The stakes remain high for the fledgling conservative movement. The failure of the tea party to rally around a presidential nominee, suggests the Associated Press' Charles Babington, "would further dilute its influence in 2012."