If you turned to a cable news channel in recent weeks, you may have seen a large group of “tea party” protesters, signs in hand, expressing outrage over government tyranny.
But how big are those groups really? The tea party protest on tax day in Washington, D.C., may have looked big on camera, but pan back, and you would have seen about 3,000 to 4,000 people in attendance. That’s hardly a groundswell.
To get an understanding of how big the loosely affiliated movement is and where it’s based, Patchwork Nation has combed through online directories to find people who have registered with tea party organizations — not a perfect system but one that captures the overwhelming majority of registered members.
The geographic snapshot: According to tea party member databases, there are roughly 67,000 members in counties across America, but the biggest producers of tea-party members in Patchwork Nation, per capita, are the “Boom Town” counties. These places experienced rapid growth around 2000 – and the worst part of the housing crash that followed.
That list of members does not include people who say they sympathize with the tea parties or their goals. Adding in those people would swell the group’s ranks and possibly change its geographic distribution.
But the numbers suggest a few things. First, the tea party movement, despite the large amount of coverage it has received, is probably not the force that media outlets have portrayed it as – at least not yet. Second, the places it is most strongly tied to tend to lean Republican and have been hit hard economically in recent years.
Places to plan a party
By far, the “Boom Town” counties have the largest number of tea party-ers per capita – 3.27 for every 10,000 people. That may not sound massive, but no other community type is above 3.
“Boom Towns” have been reliably Republican in presidential races going back to 2000 – and even before then. But Barack Obama got to within four percentage points of Sen. John McCain in these counties in 2008. Those gains were probably temporary, given the current strength of tea party support.
The other big tea party numbers are in the rural, agricultural “Tractor Country” counties and in the “Military Bastion” counties, which are located near bases for the armed forces. Both of these community types have more than 2.8 tea-party members per 10,000 people. The “Bastions” in particular have suffered as a steady string of troop deployments has left them unsteady.
Much was made last week of a survey in The New York Times on tea-party sympathizers, which found them to be wealthier than average and whiter. Nearly all the community types above would fall into the whiter-than-average camp, although income is more complicated. The “Boom Towns” and “Monied ‘Burbs” have higher-than-average household incomes, but the others do not.
Who’s missing the party?
Maybe just as interesting in this breakdown of tea-party members is what communities score lower. One might, for instance, expect to see more members in the aging “Emptying Nests” or socially conservative “Evangelical Epicenters.” Both lean conservative, but both groups appear lower on this list.
As many have already noted, there is something of a divide between the tea party and more religious conservatives. Some in the “Epicenters,” for example, feel the group is not focused enough on social issues.
Also, it may be that people in the “Emptying Nests,” where computer skills are often lacking, simply haven’t registered with the websites.
It’s also worth noting that the small-town “Service Worker Centers” sit low on the list. Those places do tend to lean right, but they don’t seem very engaged with the tea party yet.
As one might predict, the two community types with the highest percentage of African-Americans score lowest in terms of tea-party membership: the big-city “Industrial Metropolis” counties and the less-wealthy “Minority Central” counties.
Even if the 67,000 or so members we have identified overall understates the number of tea party members by a factor of 10, the number would still be fairly small in relation to the electorate as a whole.
That may change, of course. It’s still very early in the 2010 campaign. But the tea party movement, though growing, is probably not yet a major force in American politics.
In many places, it is a reiteration of conservative values, but it has yet to grow into something larger.
This entry is cross-posted from the Christian Science Monitor’s Patchwork Nation site.