Patchwork Nation: A Tea Party Census

BY dchinni  March 17, 2010 at 11:48 AM EDT

American Grass Roots Coalition and the Tea Party Express demonstration

The Tea Party movement was in the news again Tuesday as some 1,000 followers came to Washington to oppose Democrats’ final effort to pass health care reform.

Since last summer, when the group gained recognition for its vocal opposition to health care reform at town hall meetings, it has become a fixture on the national political scene. Yet questions remain: Just who, exactly, are the Tea Party faithful? The disgruntled remains of the Ron Paul movement? Fired-up elements of the Christian right? The seeds of a GOP populist movement?

Patchwork Nation has something of an answer. Using a collection of online directories from one of the biggest Tea Party groups, we have mapped and sorted a large number of members into the 12 Patchwork Nation county types.

That breakdown shows Tea Party members are, as members suggest, scattered around the country. But there are concentrations in particular places: agricultural “Tractor Country,” the “Military Bastions” located near defense installations and “Mormon Outposts” heavy with adherents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

It also suggests that the official tea party organizations, while by no means small, are probably not an army of tens of millions of voters, as some have been made them out to be.

Where to throw a Tea Party

The point of mapping Tea Party rolls is to get a sense of where they may play the biggest role in the 2010 mid-terms and to try to understand what might be motivating the members to action.

The county types where the movement appears to be the strongest are all solidly Republican, and interviews with people in those places reveal generally a strong concern about the size and power of government.

In “Tractor Country,” for instance (two members per 10,000 people), there is genuine concern about government intervening too much in local affairs. Similarly, many in the “Military Bastions” (1.95 per 10,000) are opposed to government growth and control – at least in areas not related to defense – despite those places’ obvious financial ties to the federal government.

What’s more interesting, though, is the next tier of Tea Party-friendly communities — places with above-average tea party membership: the “Boom Town” communities that grew in the first half of the past decade, and the Latino-heavy “Immigration Nation” counties.

The “Boom Towns” (1.39 members per 10,000) are fairly conservative; their vote went to John McCain in 2008. But they have also been hit very hard in the foreclosure mess. These are places where the distress of the economic downturn is acute, leaving empty homes and “underwater” homeowners.

Those exurban counties are based all over but have high concentrations in places like Florida, Virginia and California, where there will be hotly contested congressional and gubernatorial races.

“Immigration Nation” (1.33 members per 10,000) counties, based predominantly in the Southwest, were also hit hard in the foreclosure crisis. Moreover, they have the additional tension of immigration politics – and much of the Anglo population in those places favors tougher immigration laws.

The variation among these community types suggests that the motivating force for the Tea Partiers may vary significantly from place to place. Clearly, it is not all just about the economy: “Tractor Country,” for instance, has ridden out the recession fairly well up to now.

Who is a Tea Partier?

Of course, it’s fair to ask what it means to be a registered member of one group in the Tea Party movement. The member lists we have tallied contain tens of thousands of names, but there may be hundreds of thousands who are not listed – who either choose not to register, who have registered on some other site or who do not have good computer skills.

The number of members from aging “Emptying Nests” communities in this breakdown is surprisingly low (0.87 members per 10,000) considering how the Tea Partiers are often portrayed – as a more elderly set.

But even if the tea party numbers really are in the hundreds of thousands or millions, it is difficult to quantify what their impact on politics is or might be. The turnout Tuesday in Washington was lower than many expected. Some forecasts had called for thousands of Tea Partiers.

Beyond all that, remember it’s March. The contours of the 2010 campaign are still taking shape. But the question of whether tea party enthusiasm could push more conservative voters to the polls in key “Boom Town” and “Immigration Nation” counties bears watching.