Last April, the New York Times and CBS News polled Tea Party supporters. The results were very … dense. (More)

This week Morning Feature looks at probabilistic voter theory, a model that tries to explain why majority rule does not work as badly as critics fear, or as well as advocates hope. Yesterday we skimmed lightly over the icky mathematics. Today we explore how conservatism became a effective voting bloc. Tomorrow we’ll discuss how to form a more effective progressive voting bloc.

Why density matters.

Most polls in 2010 showed Tea Party supporters between 18-27% of registered voters. The April New York Times/CBS News poll showed 21% supported the Tea Party, and 25% said the Tea Party reflected most Americans’ views. Yet exit polls found Tea Party supporters were 40% of the voters in 2010, and 86% of them voted Republican. So Tea Party supporters alone brought over 34% of the vote to Republican candidates.

What do those numbers mean?

In a typical district, a Republican candidate could gear his/her campaign for the Tea Party – only 20-25% of registered voters – and win … by picking up just 1-in-4 non-Tea-Party votes. That’s the power of a very dense voting bloc.

Appealing directly to the Tea Party – speaking to the issues they thought important and proposing solutions they wanted – boosted turnout among Tea Party supporters. While overall turnout was about 40% in 2010, about average for a midterm, over two-thirds of Tea Party supporters voted. Why wouldn’t they? Most GOP candidates were saying exactly what Tea Party supporters wanted to hear.

And that message was easy to define.

A profile in density.

For example, 88% of Tea Party supporters disapproved of President Obama’s job performance, and 92% felt the country was on the wrong track. Over 90% said President Obama was mishandling the economy, 93% said he was mishandling health care, 91% said he was mishandling the deficit, 96% disapproved of Congress, 92% wanted smaller government, 94% were dissatisfied or angry with how things were going in Washington, 92% were unfavorable toward the Democratic Party, 89% said President Obama had expanded the role of government, and 92% said President Obama was moving the country toward socialism.

Those numbers show an amazing uniformity of opinion among Tea Party supporters, and that made it very easy for a Republican candidate to tailor a Tea Party campaign in 2010: run against President Obama, health care reform, deficits, socialism, and big government, especially the Big Socialist Government in Washington controlled by Democrats. That message would resonate with over 90% of Tea Party supporters.

“But wasn’t the 2010 election about jobs?” you ask.

Not to Tea Party supporters. In that NYT/CBS poll 76% of Tea Party supporters said cutting deficits was more important than creating jobs. For Republican candidates in 2010, the winning strategy was to talk a whole lot about cutting deficits – to appeal to Tea Party supporters – and mention jobs just enough to pick up the 1-in-4 non-Tea-Party voters they needed.

Even denser….

President Obama proposed no gun control legislation in the 2008 campaign, nor did he propose a single gun control law while in office. Yet the National Rifle Association endorsed over 200 GOP House candidates, and only 64 Democrats. (The 64 Democrats all had equal or higher NRA ratings and all were incumbents.) Republican leaders expressed frustration with the NRA’s endorsements of Democrats, but as in most recent elections, NRA members voted overwhelmingly Republican.

Why? Because, as we saw last year in reviewing Will Bunch’s Backlash, and again in February with Michael Wolraich’s Blowing Smoke, conservatives have bundled all of their issues into a coherent persecution narrative. And in their narrative, a threat to any is a threat to all. Democrats may not have proposed any gun control legislation in 2009-2010, but that didn’t matter. President Obama and Democrats opposed other conservative issues, and in the slippery slope world of persecution politics, it’s only a matter of time until they get around to banning guns. Why else would an online column about the NRA include this:

Hell, who knows maybe they can sell some new memberships to all those homosexuals who like to hunt…

If you see no link between LGBT rights and gun ownership, you obviously live outside that coherent conservative narrative. Let LGBTs marry and sooner or later they’ll come for your guns.

Bundling issues in a coherent narrative makes a voting bloc denser, because voters in that bloc worry less whether their individual backs got scratched or their individual oxen got gored. A threat to any is a threat to all. A Republican candidate could pitch to the Tea Party – run against President Obama, health care reform, deficits, socialism, and big government – and expect to pick up at least a few non-Tea-Party voters whose individual issues were not part of that pitch.

In a midterm election with over two thirds of Tea Party supporters voting, and with them voting overwhelmingly Republican, GOP candidates needed only a few non-Tea-Party voters – just 1-in-4 – to reach an electoral majority.

Density matters. Tomorrow we’ll discuss how to build a denser, more effective progressive bloc.


[Editor’s Note: The original article misstated the number of non-Tea-Party voters needed to win an election. We regret the error.]


Happy Friday!