As the Republican primary trundles on, there’s one nagging question that continues to go unanswered: where on earth is the Tea Party? With Michele Bachmann out of the race and Rick Perry’s weak performance in Iowa, there does not seem to be a clear candidate for Tea Party supporters to rally around – although to be fair, no candidate has seemed to be a perfect fit for the movement since the race began.
One thing appears to be clear, however, at least for Tea Party activists in South Carolina: Mitt Romney is not their first or even their last choice. According to NPR’s Frank James, the Palmetto State’s Tea Party leaders “want no part of Romney.” He’s disliked in part because of the Massachusetts health law Romney enacted as governor, but also because of his perceived failure to reach out to Tea Party activtists. And even South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s endorsement of Romney has done nothing to boost Romney’s status among the Tea Party members who helped carry her to victory in 2010; in fact, it seems to have only hurt her.
Romney already faces skepticism from white evangelical Protestants, 47% of whom say that they would be uncomfortable with a Mormon president. Since nearly half of Tea Party identifiers also say that they are part of the Christian Right, Romney could be getting a double dose of problems from this politically important group.
It’s too early, though, to draw the curtain on Romney’s chances among Tea Party activists. PRRI’s December Religion & Politics Tracking Survey showed Romney holding his own in national favorability among Tea Party voters alongside Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann (56%, 61%, and 62%, respectively). It’s true that Tea Party members were less enthusiastic about Romney than about Gingrich or Bachmann; only 19% of Tea Party voters said that they had a strongly favorable impression of Romney, compared to 36% who had a strongly favorable impression of Gingrich and 31% who had a strongly favorable view of Bachmann.
With Bachmann out of the race, there’s no telling where her supporters will go. Some Tea Party activists consider Gingrich an honorary outsider, despite his long history in Washington, while others will likely join the Santorum surge, drawn by the former senator’s strong social conservative credentials.
It’s important to remember, though, that an entrance poll of Iowa caucus participants showed that Romney was widely perceived as the most electable candidate, even if he lacked strong Tea Party support. What South Carolina could show us is whether Tea Party activists will rally around an underdog – or settle for the front-runner.