Imagine if you will, the ideal Tea Party presidential candidate. This is a movement dedicated to small government, limited constitutionalism, free enterprise and combating crony capitalism. Not a career politician like Rick Perry. Not a desperate panderer like Mitt Romney. And no, not an ideologically unpredictable disgraced former House Speaker who took money from healthcare companies and government-sponsored entities like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to promote their interests. (That’s Newt Gingrich, in case you couldn’t tell.)
Instead, picture a man who perfectly embodies the Tea Party’s identity and values. A cranky old white man, he can, unlike his opponents, boast of having both served in the military and worked in the private sector. He is a relentlessly pure ideologue: he would rather let the global economy collapse than lend money to banks at a profit. He is utterly impractical. He would rather be right than win. He has dedicated his career to staunchly supporting states’ rights and opposing wasteful spending at home and abroad.
He’s not a true libertarian: he takes socially conservative stances like opposing immigration and reproductive freedom. But the Tea Party is composed of social conservatives. Political scientists David E. Campbell and Robert D. Putnam found, “Next to being a Republican, the strongest predictor of being a Tea Party supporter today was a desire, back in 2006, to see religion play a prominent role in politics.”
There is, of course, the matter of his past racism. And that raises the possibility that his opposition to social spending is motivated by racial resentment. But there’s survey data to suggest he’s hardly alone among Tea Partiers in that regard.
The man is Ron Paul. And yes, he is surging in Iowa. But no, he won’t be the Republican nominee for president, and he isn’t the Tea Party candidate either. Why is that? His foreign policy views are simply at odds with a majority of Tea Party voters. And because Tea Party leaders want to win, even if they are more sympathetic to Paul, they won’t try to force Paul onto the movement.
You must distinguish between the different Tea Parties. There’s the Tea Party of professional political activists at organizations like FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity. These activists are informed and intensely conservative on fiscal issues. They generally say that Paul is indeed their favorite candidate on pure principle. But these are political operators: they want to win, and they don’t back sure losers.
Then there’s the mass of voters and occasional activists who identify with the Tea Party. They tend to be conservative Republicans who are often turned off by Paul’s non-interventionist foreign policy and perhaps his opposition to the drug war and the Patriot Act.
Between the two groups are leaders of grassroots organizations like Tea Party Patriots. They may be closer to Paul ideologically but they are committed to letting the grassroots members guide them. Tea Party Patriots recently hosted a telephone forum with candidates followed by a straw poll. Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum participated. Rick Perry and Ron Paul did not participate due to scheduling conflicts and Jon Huntsman did not respond to the invitation. There were over 23,000 respondents. Gingrich won with 31 percent, followed by Bachmann at 28 percent, Romney with 20, Santorum with 16, and Paul came in fifth with only 3 percent. Clearly participation influenced the results, but the fact that Paul has much more faithfully followed Tea Party principles throughout his career obviously didn’t carry much weight. “On foreign policy probably the majority [of Tea Party Patriots] are more like [hawks] Michele Bachmann or Newt Gingrich,” says Jenny Beth Martin, a national coordinator for the group. “A lot of people say ‘I really like Ron Paul’ and then when it comes to his foreign policy they get a little skittish.”