The pathological antipathy of various 'Tea Party' groups--including the Tea Party Express and FreedomWorks, "the two leading organizations within the movement"--to organization, as well as their destructive affinity for strident and unruly demonstration have created nothing less than a political minefield which every Republican Presidential contender will be forced to traverse throughout the campaign, at considerable peril to their electoral prospects.
While the benefits of Tea Party support for gaining the Republican nomination for president are uncertain, the Palmetto forum demonstrates the danger for candidates: how not to be drawn into a blind alley with a disorganized and disordered conservative movement. Tea Party activists will likely exert a strong influence on Republican primaries and caucuses (think Pat Robertson in 1988), and if the race gets tight, candidates will not be able to afford to ignore or alienate them. However, the eventual nominee may end up losing significant independent support if they are pulled too far to the right. According to an August CNN poll, a majority of Americans now have an unfavorable opinion of the Tea Party, with favorability slipping 7% since the midterm elections. Democratic strategists are hopeful that the Republican nominee will be easily linked with an increasingly unpopular Tea Party movement.
A possible strategy for candidates dealing with the Tea Party is to stay more aloof from specific groups and spend more time organizing grassroots citizens who are favorable to the goals of the movement. Since there is little firm organization among Tea Party groups, the ground is fertile for some kind of mobilization of support within campaigns. However, this will prove difficult as the Tea Party movement has steadfastly resisted leadership or direction. Candidates might also put pressure on the Republican National Committee to do more to bring order to the Wild West atmosphere Tea Party protest has inspired in conservatives. Their energy and enthusiasm is something Republicans desperately need to reignite their party, but their continued unruly, uncompromising and often unorganized protest might well shake apart conservative support for the eventual nominee, and help hand President Obama a second term in 2012.