Election 2010: What Will Become of the Tea Party?

As Tuesday’s midterm elections draw closer, hype about the Tea Party seems to have died down from its height this summer. As a result, some political communicators believe the Democrats will retain their majority in Congress. Still others believe the Tea Party’s appeal to fresh-thinking Republicans will lead to noteworthy gains next week. Either way, come Tuesday night, the Tea Party’s use of modern communication tactics is sure to have changed the way we think about political communication.

Mike Lewis, veteran political communicator and communications director for Congressman Jo Bonner, describes the Tea Party movement as a public response to the big government policies of present and past presidential administrations. Although there are various sub-groups, Tea Party supporters are unified by an opposition to taxation and excessive government spending.

“The difference is that it is much better organized and widespread than past populist political movements like Ross Perot’s Reform Party in 1992,” Lewis said.

Another difference, Lewis said, is the party’s lack of a singular target audience. Although the movement attracted many middle- and lower-middle-income Americans, many of whom are Republicans, it also attracted a sizeable number of Libertarians, Independents and moderate Democrats.

“The Tea Party is a massive grass roots political movement . . . that has reached out to any Americans who have similar views,” Lewis said.

Although the Tea Party began from the conversations of ordinary conservative Americans, it quickly spread its message and bolstered support through the use of blogs and other Internet media, a strategy likely learned from the Obama presidential campaign of 2008.

“The Tea Party rallied from the prolific reach of the Internet,” Lewis said. “E-mails, blogs, websites, YouTube and social media. Videos posted of Congressional town hall meetings and anti-government marches and rallies in Washington and elsewhere stoked the growing Tea Party movement and continue to drive it today.”

Of course, the support and continued coverage by conservative political personalities didn’t hurt the movement, either.

“All of this was fanned and accentuated by more than a half dozen talk radio programs which both ostracized the Obama administration’s big government policies and gave voice to the Tea Party leaders and followers,” Lewis said.

Although more traditional tactics such as bus tours and public rallies also helped to grow support for the movement’s conservative agenda, Lewis believes the Tea Party’s use of the Internet and social media to be the most important strategy.

“The tactics employed by the Tea Party are the new conventional tactics in the age of the new media,” Lewis said. “It is an effective strategy that will continue.”

As for whether or not the Tea Party’s communication tactics re-vamped the industry of political communication, Lewis believes the real change began with the Obama presidential campaign in 2008 and only strengthened in recent years.

“In the last two years, Congress has renewed its focus on new media communication to meet and satisfy the public’s demand for official information,” Lewis said. “[New media] has given dissenting voices a megaphone where before they were silent.”

No matter which party gains or loses seats in this election, the real focus for political communicators will be on the results of the innovative tactics used. These results (or lack thereof) could be a testament to the ever-growing uses of social media, but they will also provide an idea of their limits.

By Meredith Julian

Were you swayed by the Tea Party’s use of modern communication tactics? Do you think there is a limit to the results social media can provide? Do you think its use will help or hurt the Tea Party?

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