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Tea party lessons [Commentary]

What makes the tea party movement so effective at mobilizing voters and winning elections is the same thing that may limit its effectiveness in the future: its decentralized nature. The tea party movement is politics guerrilla-style.

The first thing a non-tea partier must know is that there is no single tea party; there are multiple tea parties that maintain a loose connection with one another through informal contacts or more formalized caucuses. Most tea party groups are hyper-local and get by with the efforts of volunteers and a small group of donors. They keep their overhead low and put resources into efforts that will translate directly into votes. Some tea party groups have no budget because they accept and spend no money as a group; rather they rely on members to get the word out at election time.

Rather than waiting on a centralized command center to send out directives based on surveys and data-mining, tea parties work within their communities — places they know and are known.

Tea Parties, like decentralized systems in general, are more responsive and more cost efficient than centralized organizations. Decisions are made and executed near the point of action. This allows for a more efficient and effective allocation of resources.

Tea parties have been able to leverage the benefits of decentralization into political victories. They have carried Alan West, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul into office, while also accounting for the national relevance of Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman. At the state and local level, tea party backed candidates are also beating moderate candidates at the ballot box on a regular basis. The Republican primaries in Texas resulted in five Republican incumbents losing to tea party challengers, while not a single tea party-favored incumbent lost in the House. The three Tea Party-backed Supreme Court Justices were able to fend off liberal-leaning challengers as well.

But decentralized systems are not fail safe. Coordination and quality control are two challenges confronting tea parties. Without a centralized coordinating body, there is a good chance that in a Republican primary several candidates can have the support of different tea parties, thus splitting the vote and giving a primary victory to an establishment Republican. Local races may not have this problem, but in statewide races the challenge may become troublesome.

Then comes the second issue of quality control. In states and locales with strong tea parties, candidates know it is to their benefit to have the support of tea party groups. But even if they don't, it would be easy to claim otherwise by creating so-called "election day tea parties" that only exist at the polls on election day. During early voting and on election day, candidates without tea party support could print up fliers with a previously non-existent tea party name suggesting that he or she has the endorsement of that tea party. Because there is no centralized sanctioning body, this deceptive tactic is not a lie since anyone at any time can create a tea party. If tea parties want to maintain their legitimacy, they must develop a quality control mechanism to keep tactics like these from keeping their preferred candidates out of office.

Tea parties are on the cusp of learning how much more difficult it is to maintain success than it is to get it initially. They may be able to ride their current wave of momentum through the next few election cycles, but eventually they must confront the issues that are unique to their decentralized structure. How tea parties take on these challenges will not only determine their future success, but will also be a study of the sustainability of decentralized systems more generally.

Kyle Scott is the author of four books and over 100 articles on politics and public policy. He teaches teaches American politics and constitutional law at the University of Houston. His email is kyle.a.scott@hotmail.com; Twitter: @ScottKyleA.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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