Where Tea Partiers Live

PBS's NewsHour and thehave created an interactive map showing the geographic distribution of self-identified Tea Partiers. It reveals some interesting truths about the movement -- and the GOP's future.
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Ever wondered where the Tea Partiers actually live? The PBS NewsHour website has now helpfully mapped it out as part of their "Patchwork Nation" project (in partnership with the Christian Science Monitor), for anyone interested to see. This map isn't exactly surprising, as it shows Tea Partiers are more concentrated in traditional Republican areas. But it is interesting to see such a level of detail, measured as concentration of Tea Party members for every county across America.

The map is only as good as the data, though, and their data collection includes only actual Tea Party members (67,000 of them), from online membership databases. Meaning it doesn't capture anyone who hasn't actually signed up with an online Tea Party site -- which, due to the decentralized nature of the movement, might include a lot of folks who show up to rallies and wave signs, or even offer quiet support from home. The PBS story accompanying the map admits this freely: "That list of members does not include people who say they sympathize with the tea parties or their goals. Adding in those people would swell the group's ranks and possibly change its geographic distribution."

[Click on the tiny map below, to see the full map. You may have to, once it loads, select "Elections" and "Tea Party members (per 10K residents)" to see it. Or click the link in the previous paragraph to see a static (non-Flash) version of the map. Also, on the Flash version, click at the bottom on "Tea Party members (total) to see an accompanying map which shows total membership by county.]

The article (and the interactive map, when you roll your mouse over any county) divides the country up into different types of county and provides them with odd names (Tractor Country, Mormon Outpost, Minority Central, etc.) depending on their general makeup.

The highest concentration of Tea Partiers, they found, were in "Boom Towns" -- places which enjoyed economic success in the run up to the financial crash, but have been hard-hit since (especially in the housing market). Second and third on the list were "Military Bastions" and "Tractor Country." The lowest concentration was in "Industrial Metropolis" and "Minority Central" -- again, no surprise there.

But beyond the Patchwork Nation labels, the map does show a few interesting things. When taken together with the accompanying map which shows just the total number of Tea Party members, there are a few interesting holes in the maps, which may further define the struggle currently taking place for the control of the Republican Party.

For instance, the High Plains states have almost no Tea Party members, even though a lot of conservative Republican farmers live there. Likewise, Appalachian regions seem to be less represented than you'd think, in places like Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia. There are concentrations of Tea Partiers throughout the Mountain West, reaching down to Arizona and New Mexico -- but then, you'd expect this, since conservatism in these parts has always had a serious libertarian streak to it. The rural parts of the West Coast are also represented well, which might come as a surprise to some, but not to anyone who knows rural California and Oregon, for instance.

The heaviest concentrations appear to be in Texas and Florida, on both maps. This is one reason the Tea Partiers are taken so seriously by the Republican Party, because their electoral map back to the White House pretty much has to include winning both states, or else they're not going to win the Electoral College. Both Texas and Florida are states with very different types of Republicans, since a lot of folks retire to both from other places (giving politics there a more interesting mix than elsewhere).

But the most interesting thing about the map to me is the relatively low numbers for Tea Partiers in certain areas of the country. The first one spreads from a wide swath of the Bible Belt states in the South, up throughout the Midwest. From Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, you can pretty much follow the Mississippi and Ohio river valleys without finding significant numbers of Tea Partiers, all the way to the Canadian border. This may show a big wedge in the Republican Party itself, between social conservatives who vote based on hot-button issues such as abortion and gay marriage, and the fiscal conservatives as represented by the Tea Partiers. It's hard to believe, seeing some of the Tea Party signs, but the Tea Partiers may not be acceptably focused on social conservatism for a lot of people across this region.

Likewise, the scarcity of Tea Partiers in New England is rather surprising. New England Republicans seem like natural recruits for the Tea Partiers, since Republicans up there have been beating the "fiscal responsibility" drum for a long time -- long before it was considered cool even by fellow Republicans. So it would seem the flinty, bottom-line, balance-the-budget conservatives the New England region is known for would welcome the Tea Party message -- but, strangely, they do not. One can only speculate that the Tea Partiers may come across as too unseemly for the very down-to-Earth Republicanism practiced in New England. I fully admit, though, I have nothing whatsoever to base such a speculation upon, it's just a sheer guess.

Again, the maps should only be seen as partial data. The Tea Party movement is constantly in flux, and measuring just those who sign up online can miss huge demographics -- like people who are not computer-savvy, or have no local Tea Party to sign up for (the map does not differentiate between "No Tea Partiers" and "No data"). This could miss quite a few older folks, or rural folks -- in exactly the areas where they're missing from the map. So, while it shouldn't be seen as the definitive map of Tea Partiers, from the data available to them, it is indeed an interesting snapshot of the movement's actual current membership.

The upcoming fratricidal battle within the Republican Party seems inevitable, at this point. The Tea Partiers themselves (or a goodly chunk of them, at least) have not shown any interest in attempting to form a true national third political party. Which leaves open whether this may happen rather organically at the state or regional level. The situation in Florida may be the most interesting and most-watched this year, especially if Charlie Crist decides in the next few weeks whether he's going to "pull a Lieberman" and run as an independent candidate in the general election (rather than badly lose to a Tea Party-style candidate in the Republican primary). But if the map is not in fact misleading, the Republican Party is going to find itself pulled in two directions by two different groups -- the Bible Belt social conservatives, and the Tea Party fiscal conservatives. And since both of these groups are rather famous for kicking those out who don't agree with their priorities and agenda, this could lead to a sort of mutual excommunication in some election races, or in some geographical areas. Which side wins this struggle could shape the Republican Party for years to come, one way or another.

Chris Weigant blogs at:

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant

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