A New Conspiracy Theory: IRS Tea Party Targeting Helped Win The Election For Obama
A new theory circulating on the right asserts that IRS targeting of Tea Party groups had an impact on the 2012 elections by diminish the Tea Party's effectiveness. It's mostly nonsense.
Stan Veuger and a group other scholars at the American Enterprise Institute came out last week with a study that claim that the IRS’s program of scrutinizing conservative organizations applying for 501(c)(4) status played a significant role in muting the Tea Party movement and, thus, the outcome of the 2012 Presidential Election:
In a new research paper, Andreas Madestam (from Stockholm University), Daniel Shoag and David Yanagizawa-Drott (both from the Harvard Kennedy School), and I set out to find out how much impact the Tea Party had on voter turnout in the 2010 election. We compared areas with high levels of Tea Party activity to otherwise similar areas with low levels of Tea Party activity, using data from the Census Bureau, the FEC, news reports, and a variety of other sources. We found that the effect was huge: the movement brought the Republican Party some 3 million-6 million additional votes in House races. That is an astonishing boost, given that all Republican House candidates combined received fewer than 45 million votes. It demonstrates conclusively how important the party’s newly energized base was to its landslide victory in those elections, and how worried Democratic strategists must have been about the conservative movement’s momentum.
The Tea Party movement’s huge success was not the result of a few days of work by an elected official or two, but involved activists all over the country who spent the year and a half leading up to the midterm elections volunteering, organizing, donating, and rallying. Much of these grassroots activities were centered around 501(c)4s, which according to our research were an important component of the Tea Party movement and its rise.
The bottom line is that the Tea Party movement, when properly activated, can generate a huge number of votes-more votes in 2010, in fact, than the vote advantage Obama held over Romney in 2012.
President Obama’s margin of victory in some of the key swing states was fairly small: a mere 75,000 votes separated the two contenders in Florida, for example. That is less than 25% of our estimate of what the Tea Party’s impact in Florida was in 2010. Looking forward to 2012 in 2010 undermining the Tea Party’s efforts there must have seemed quite appealing indeed.
Unfortunately for Republicans, the IRS slowed Tea Party growth before the 2012 election. In March 2010, the IRS decided to single Tea Party groups out for special treatment when applying for tax-exempt status by flagging organizations with names containing “Tea Party,” “patriot,” or “9/12.”For the next two years, the IRS approved the applications of only four such groups, delaying all others while subjecting the applicants to highly intrusive, intimidating requests for information regarding their activities, membership, contacts, Facebook posts, and private thoughts.
As a consequence, the founders, members, and donors of new Tea Party groups found themselves incapable of exercising their constitutional rights, and the Tea Party’s impact was muted in the 2012 election cycle.
Veuger concedes, that we cannot know for sure, and are likely to never be able to know if the IRS’s program actually had any impact on the election or, if it did, whether that impact would have been in any way decisive. However, that hasn’t stopped many on the right from picking up the ball that he and running with it all the way to a full fledged theory that the IRS cost Mitt Romney the election. Yeuger’s AEI colleague James Pethokoukis doesn’t fully endorse the idea, but says that i that doesn’t stop him from accepting its essential viability by making these assumptions:
1. Let’s say Tea Party groups had continued to grow at the pace seen in 2009 and 2010.
2. And let’s further say that their impact on the 2012 vote would have been similar to that seen in 2010. A new paper co-authored by AEI’s Stan Veuger estimates the grass-roots movement generated 3 million to 6 million additional Republican votes in House races in the midterms.
3. The 2012 result would have seen as many as 5 million to 8.5 million additional GOP votes versus a President Obama victory margin of 5 million votes. And right around now, Mitt Romney would be pushing hard to implement his tax reform plan, and #44 would be launching the Obama Global Initiative.
All of these assumption are, I would submit, dubious at best. By almost every measure, and most especially in the vast amount of public opinion polling that occurred in the years leading up to the 2012 Presidential election, it was fairly clear that the Tea Party reached its peak in 2009 and 2010 when it first burst upon the scene in response to both the health care reform ideas being debated in Congress and, more importantly, what many perceived as the excessive spending and bailout mentality represented by the Obama Administration’s stimulus bill and proposals to bailout homeowners in trouble with their mortgages. Indeed, it’s worth noting that the event that led to the first “Tea Party” rallies in April 2009 was a commentary by CNBC’s Rick Santelli that went viral on the Internet in a matter of hours in March of that year. There’s no denying that momentum for this movement grew as the months went on, and most especially when Members of Congress went back to their Districts on summer recess to face hordes of angry constituents at Town Halls, many of which became quite heated. That momentum continued to build throughout 2009 and into 2010, culminating in such events as the protests at the U.S. Capitol during those final days that Congress was debating and voting upon the Affordable Care Act, which had already earned the moniker “ObamaCare.”
As the 2010 elections approached, Republican politicians clamored for the support of local and national Tea Party organizations, and the movement actually did score some real political victories. In Utah, incumbent Senator Robert Bennett was denied re-nomination by his own party thanks largely to a well-organized Tea Party movement at the state party convention. The movement also arguably scored “victories” of a sort in Alaska with Joe Miller, Nevada with Sharron Angle, and Delaware with Christine O’Donnell. Now, the fact that all four of these candidates ended up losing the General Election would ultimately end up becoming grounds upon which others in the GOP would begin to criticize the Tea Party, but they were successes. Additionally, there were several successful Senate candidates — Mike Lee in Utah, Rand Paul in Kentucky, and Marco Rubio in Florida — and many more House members who would be Freshmen in the 112th Congress, who benefited greatly from Tea Party support, and went on to win their elections. So, I think we can safely say that the Tea Party was a powerful force at the peak of its power in the wake of the 2010 elections.
Does it follow from that, though, that the movement would have continued growing at the same exponential rate all the way up to the Presidential elections? Given that it’s difficult for any political movement to maintain that kind of momentum over a long period of time, the intuitive guess would be that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for the Tea Party to maintain the same growth and enthusiasm levels heading into 2011 and 2012. More importantly, as I noted above, things began to change drastically one the Tea Party began to demonstrate what it intended to do with its new power. While they weren’t a majority in either the House or Senate GOP Caucuses, the “Tea Party Caucus” as it was unofficially called existed in sufficient numbers to have an impact on how things were done in Congress and, to a large degree, it was not an impact that the general public seemed to appreciate. Legislation was blocked, deals were made impossible, and in August 2011 the nation was brought to the brink of not being able to pay all of its bills due to the imminent expiration of the debt ceiling. Overtime, the Tea Party, which had polled relatively well in 2009 and 2010, began to fall out of public favor to the point, where by the time 2012 rolled around, it was viewed largely negatively. In the Republican primaries for President, the Tea Party had almost no impact on the fortunes of the candidates that were seeking to appeal to it. Finally, in the most recent poll on the subject, only 23% of those polled had a positive view of the Tea Party while 47% had a negative view.
Given all of this, it strains credulity to accept either of Pethokoukis’s final two assumptions, which kind of makes the entire argument that it was the IRS investigations that held the Tea Party back in 2012 completely ridiculous.
That hasn’t stopped others on the right from taking Veuger’s study to the ultimate conclusion, though. Most notable among those so far is Peggy Noonan, who brought the matter up in her most recent column:
One of the great questions about the 2012 campaign has been “Where was the tea party?” They were not the fierce force they’d been in the 2010 cycle, when Republicans took back the House. Some of us think the answer to the question is: “Targeted by the IRS, buried under paperwork and unable to raise money.”
The economist Stan Veuger, on the American Enterprise Institute‘s blog, takes the question a step further.
The Democrats had been badly shaken by the Republican comeback of 2010. They feared a repeat in 2012 that would lose them the White House.
Might targeting the tea-party groups—diverting them, keeping them from forming and operating—seem a shrewd campaign strategy in the years between 2010 and 2012? Sure. Underhanded and illegal, but potentially effective.
Think about the sheer political facts of the president’s 2012 victory. The first thing we learned, in the weeks after the voting, was that the Obama campaign was operating with a huge edge in its technological operation—its vast digital capability and sophistication. The second thing we learned, in the past month, is that while the campaign was on, the president’s fiercest foes, in the Tea Party, were being thwarted, diverted and stopped.
Technological savvy plus IRS corruption. The president’s victory now looks colder, more sordid, than it did. Which is why our editor, James Taranto, calls him “President Asterisk.”
The leaps of logic that Veuger, Pethokoukis, and Noonan are engaging in here would made an Olympic high jumper jealous. As I’ve already noted, it’s very dubious that the Tea Party movement of 2009-2010 would have maintained the same level of enthusiasm and growth in the run-up to the 2012 elections. Moreover, the extent to which the Tea Party was responsible for the GOP victories in 2010 is, at best, debatable. While they obviously paid an important role in keeping the enthusiasm of voters who otherwise identified as likely to vote Republican, exit polling after the 2010 election made it quite clear that the issue motivating most voters was the economy not jobs, not the issues that the Tea Party was raising such as government spending and health care reform. Given the state of the economy, it was quite likely that the GOP was going to gain seats in 2010 with or without the Tea Party, then, although you could possible argue that the wave that gave the GOP control of the House was in part due to Tea Party generated voter turnout. However, to a large degree, I would argue that the role the Tea Party played in the 2010 elections has been highly exaggerated by many on the right.
Another flaw in the Veuger/Pethokoukis/Noonan hypothesis is the idea that IRS scrutiny of Tea Party groups, leaving aside any motivation behind it for the moment, had any real impact on the 2012 election. As David Weigel notes, by this point in the Tea Party movement’s evolution the actual organization of the Tea Party was being handled by well-funded groups such as Freedomworks and Americans for Prosperity. Additionally, it’s public face could be seen in groups such as Tea Party Nation and Tea Party Patriots. All of these groups had tax-free status going back years and were not caught up in, or even affected by, what was going on with the IRS. More importantly, as Wick Allison notes, it’s difficult to find any connection between the IRS’s examination of the 501(c)(4) applications of some number of mostly local Tea Party groups and the outcome of the 2012 Presidential election. More importantly, Allison points out that actual voter turnout numbers don’t support the theory either:
[T]he popular vote for GOP House candidates in 2012 was 58 million compared to 2010-s 45 million. Instead of being incapable of exercising their constitutional rights, 13 million more Tea Party-influenced voters apparently were very capable of exercising their rights. Of course, 2012 was a presidential election year which always produces a higher vote. But a 28 percent surge in voting can hardly be described as a “muted” impact.
Moreover, the GOP’s share of the 2012 House vote was six million more than in the previous presidential cycle in 2008. Vueger claims the Tea Party should have produced 5-8 million more votes in 2012, and it looks like that’s exactly what it did, substantially increasing the GOP’s totals over 2008 and 2010. So what’s this business about the IRS?
It’s utter nonsense is what it is, and in the end it has no more intellectual value to it than the ridiculous “skewed polling” meme that became popular on the right during the final weeks of the 2012 campaign. The right didn’t lose in 2012 because the polls were skewed, or because of some vast conspiracy involving the Internal Revenue Service. It lost because President Obama ran a better campaign, because Mitt Romney ran a bad one in many respects, and because the Republican Party found itself out of step with the public as a whole on a wide variety of issues. Conservatives who try to deny reality by coming up with new conspiracy theories do neither themselves nor the movement they claim to care about any good and they just end up looking ridiculous in the end.