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The Changing Face of the Tea Party

Six months into the 2010 primary season, the most-discussed new force in American politics, the tea party movement, remains something of a mystery.

Wins by Republicans with tea party backing such as Rand Paul and Sharron Angle in Senate primaries have spurred a discussion about the power of the movement within the GOP. But questions remain about who the tea party’s devotees are and how big a force they will be in November.

Patchwork Nation has previously examined tea party membership – though that’s a tricky word considering the loose affiliation of groups making up the movement.

In April, we combed through registered members on the main tea party sites and found members were most heavily based in the nation’s Boom Town counties – places that had grown rapidly in the first half of the last decade and since been hammered by foreclosures.

A new look at the numbers reveals a movement that is changing and growing – improving its numbers in different county types. And it shows how the registrants at the two largest tea party Web sites look to be very different.

A Movement in Motion

Talking about the tea party inevitably raises questions. How does one determine who members are in a group where supporters often aren’t registered anywhere, who just show up at rallies or simply pass in and out through following groups on Facebook? But measuring registered members, looking at those who take the time and effort to register with sites, offers insight into the where the most dedicated members are based.

And that combined with what Patchwork Nation knows about those places gives us some sense of what might be motivating those members. As we have noted in the past, different tea party groups have different agendas.

Our latest analysis of tea party registrants shows a total of some 57,000 people on the largest tea party web sites. (That’s fewer than April’s numbers as a whole, but largely because there were many duplicate entries in that last batch of numbers that we have since cleaned out.) When you adjust the numbers the tea party movement has seen growth of between 35 and 40 percent in registrants on its main sites since April.

But more interesting is where the growth has happened.

Evangelicals and southern Minority Central locations are stronger in this set of numbers than they were before. That’s an area of significant difference from the earlier numbers. Southern support appears to have grown,” says James Gimpel, a political science professor at the University of Maryland who is also a consultant on Patchwork.

The largest tea party membership per capita in this latest set of data comes from the rural Tractor County counties – 4.13 per 10,000 people. Those places are followed by socially conservative Evangelical Epicenters at 3.14 members per 10,000 people.

Those numbers are significant. Tractor Country would seem to be an obvious place for the tea party to catch on. As we have noted before, people there have less debt than those in other communities and they were most unhappy about the TARP program. The increase in the Evangelical Epicenters also suggests that, in some places at least, the tea party is reaching into the ranks of Christian conservatives – there had been tensions between social conservatives and tea partiers in the past.

The Boom Towns now score in the middle in membership at 2.41 members per 10,000 people.

The two county types with the fewest number of tea partiers per capita remain the most urban locales – the big-city Industrial Metropolis counties and the largely suburban Monied ‘Burbs. Voters in those places voted heavily for President Barack Obama in 2008.

A Split in the ‘Party’

The fractious nature of the tea party is by now a well-established point, but looking at the registrants of the two major tea party web sites – Freedom Works and Tea Party Patriots – shows a notable divide.

Freedom Works, the tea party group led by former House Republican leader Dick Armey, is the smaller of the two organizations, but it is also concentrated in more urban counties with fewer tea party members. About 40 percent of the Freedom Works registrants come from Monied ‘Burbs and Industrial Metropolis counties.

The Tea Party Patriots are based most heavily in the Boom Towns, but their membership is also spread more evenly around the 12 community types – and they have much larger bases of support in the Evangelical Epicenter, Immigration Nation and Service Worker Center counties.

Viewed this way, Freedom Works might be seen as representing the nation’s wealthier, more politically connected areas while the Patriots seem to be drawing off of what could be loosely thought of less-wealthy and more rural locales. In a movement already ripe with divisions, it will be interesting to note how those differences play out going forward.

Then, of course, there is the larger question of the how big the influence is a movement within a political party when the elections move from primaries to the general election in November. Even in what could be considered the tea party’s two biggest wins in the primary season – Paul in Kentucky and Angle in Nevada – turnout hovered about 30 percent. Turnout will likely be much higher in the fall and the tea party voters could be overrun.

These numbers, however, at least suggest that the tea party has momentum and is making inroads into communities that could be crucial to its success as an election power in November.

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