In my column for CNN, I discuss how the Tea Party will react to the different possible outcomes of the 2012 election:
A new CNN poll finds that about half of Republicans sympathize with the tea party movement. The other half either remain aloof or (5%) even express hostility.
That second group of Republicans has received remarkably little media attention this cycle. Yet their man — Mitt Romney — has held steady in first or second place for the past three years. Meanwhile tea party Republicans have bounced from Sarah Palin to Donald Trump to Michele Bachmann to Rick Perry to (now) Herman Cain, transfixing the media every time they lose faith in one messiah and search for another.
Yet sooner or later, the tea party Republicans must converge on a single choice. When they do, they will present the non-tea party Republicans with a troubling menu of possibilities.
Possibility 1: Romney is nominated, Romney is elected.
From the point of view of non-tea party Republicans, this is the ideal outcome of the 2012 election. Yet it is also an outcome that looks worryingly out of reach. As we enter the final 12 months of the election countdown, Romney still cannot rise above 30% support in his own party. Worse, while it’s easy to imagine (say) Herman Cain’s voters shifting to Rick Perry or vice versa, it is very hard to imagine where Mitt Romney will find the additional Republican votes he needs.
Possibility 2: Romney is nominated, Romney loses.
For non-tea party Republicans, this second outcome opens all kinds of ugly, ominous possibilities. If candidate Romney loses, tea party Republicans will claim that the GOP lost because it failed to nominate a “true conservative.” That claim may fly in the face of political math (how would a more extreme candidate win more votes?), but it will pack a lot of emotional punch. Intense partisans are always ready to believe that the way to win is to be moreintense and more partisan. Back-to-back losses under John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 will open the way to an ultra-conservative nominee in 2016 — and a true party debacle.