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The Tea Party's 5 biggest 2016 problems

A Tea Party rally in front of the US Capitol, June 2013.
A Tea Party rally in front of the US Capitol, June 2013.
Mark Wilson / Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

As the 2016 GOP presidential primaries get closer, many conservatives have been growing increasingly hopeful that this will be finally the year they determine their party's nominee.

It's a tall order. The Tea Party has shown it can push GOP politicians to the right and win one-off Senate primaries. But taking on the establishment in an expensive, months-long slog of primaries and caucuses across the country is a more difficult proposition. Even when Mitt Romney looked weak in 2012, the Tea Party didn't manage to coalesce around a viable alternative.

This time, things feel different. In a post at the Mischiefs of Faction blog earlier this year, political scientist Jason McDaniel of San Francisco State University posited that the Tea Party conservatives will eventually unite around one candidate: Walker.

But while this is an intriguing scenario, there are still reasons to be skeptical. The large field makes coordination difficult and may contain several candidates that appeal to distinctive factions of the right but turn off others. And there's that big question of which candidates are more likely to beat Hillary Clinton. Here are five obstacles that could, yet again, prevent the Tea Party from getting its way.

1) Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum could win Christian right support

Mike Huckabee

Mike Huckabee. (Win McNamee/Getty)

Tea Party conservatives — which I'm defining broadly here, to include various conservative groups and voters who are frequently critical of the GOP establishment and aren't predominantly motivated by religious issues — are most successful in elections when they agree with the Christian right. When they differ on which candidate is best, the vote of the right is split and strange things can happen — like the plurality victory of Todd Akin in the 2012 Missouri Senate primary, a Christian right candidate who actually wasn't supported by Tea Party groups.

So the presence of Mike Huckabee, and also likely Rick Santorum, in the race is a problem for the Tea Party. Both are proven vote-getters among the Christian right that the Tea Party and business wings of the GOP — and, likely, general election voters — have little love for. (Huckabee is despised by anti-tax groups like the Club for Growth, while Santorum wants to play up family values issues more than economics.) And in their previous runs for president, both stayed in the race for quite a while after most pundits wrote them off — and won several states.

The upshot of this is that, if Huckabee or Santorum proves popular among strongly religious conservatives again, any "anti-establishment" vote could be split among a Christian right candidate and a Tea Party candidate. And if either of these past Iowa caucus winners manages another early state win, he'll likely remain in the race for quite a while — helping prevent the rise of a Tea Party-backed challenger like Walker.

2) Rand Paul is an odd fit

rand paul

Could Tea Party supporters rally behind Paul — or will he just divide them further? (Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

When Rand Paul first took on the establishment in his 2010 run for Senate, he was frequently referred to as a Tea Party challenger. But by 2014, it had become "clearer and clearer that this [Tea Party] label doesn't really fit," Aaron Blake wrote last year. For the most part, Paul seemed uninterested in serving up red meat to the base — instead challenging favorite talking points ("amnesty is a word that's trapped us," he said last year), and emphasizing how the party has "to reach out to more people." And while Paul's votes remain quite conservative on most issues, he's frequently crossed party lines to work with Democrats.

During the 2012 primaries, Rand's father Ron Paul had a dedicated core of supporters — he won 21 percent of the vote in the Iowa caucuses and 22 percent in New Hampshire. The more mainstream Rand could build on those totals and win a plurality victory in an early caucus or primary. But what would happen next?

It doesn't seem impossible that the Tea Party could coalesce behind Rand Paul. But his personal style and occasional ideological deviations (especially on foreign policy) make him an odd fit. My view is that a strong showing by Paul would most likely lead to a split in the anti-establishment vote (as with Huckabee and Santorum) — and make the ultimate victory of an establishment candidate more likely.

3) The vast number of candidates will make coordination difficult

2008 GOP field

The 2008 GOP field was big. This year's will be bigger. (Joe Raedle / Getty)

Practically every Republican seems to be getting ready to run for president. The people preparing to run include establishment favorites, rising stars, self-promoters, and has-beens — and could get as big as 20.

Many of these candidates may opt against a run and others might drop out before the Iowa caucuses due to lack of support — but the more candidates there are, the more difficult it will be for the Tea Party to coordinate around one. Possible candidates who will court the support of this wing of the party include Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, and Mike Pence.

The question of when candidates drop out will be crucial to determining the Tea Party's success. Dave Weigel has written that the Tea Party could succeed by "minimizing possible spoilers and locating a white knight. It might take until South Carolina or Florida, but if only one candidate is left by then—a Ted Cruz, a Rand Paul, a Scott Walker—he’d be in a stronger position than any insurgent since Ronald Reagan in 1976."

Yet when there are so many candidates running, some may not be so amenable to dropping out quickly — especially those with anti-establishment dispositions. And if a Tea Partier misses the chance to make a splash by winning Iowa or New Hampshire, it may be too late. (Bill Clinton is the only modern presidential nominee who didn't win either of those states, but the Iowa caucuses were basically meaningless in 1992 because home state senator Tom Harkin was running.)

4) Immigration is a fraught issue

Ted Cruz Heritage Action

Ted Cruz will hammer his rivals on immigration. (Alex Wong / Getty)

Unauthorized immigration is an issue that hugely matters to Tea Party voters. When Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson interviewed Tea Party activists across the nation, they found that "immigration was always a central, and sometimes the central, concern" they expressed. It's the biggest hot-button topic that divides the GOP's elites from its base, and it was a factor in House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's primary defeat last year.

Yet many potential Tea Party favorite candidates have avoided or downright contradicted the Tea Party on this issue. These include establishment contenders like Jeb Bush. But also, Marco Rubio, once a Tea Party favorite who successfully challenged establishment favorite Charlie Crist, ended up co-authoring the Senate immigration reform bill — and losing the trust of the Tea Party right.

Scott Walker, too — frequently posited as an electable figure the Tea Party could rally around — has flirted with support for legalizing the status of unauthorized immigrants, though he's more recently moved toward criticizing legal immigration that hurts Americans' wages. Rand Paul worked with a pro-immigration reform group last year to try to pass a Republican bill — though he voted against the Senate's bipartisan compromise. And even Ted Cruz hasn't ruled out legal status for unauthorized immigrants here now. So it's unclear the conservatives who care most about this issue will find a champion.

5) Tea Party conservatives may not agree on who is electable

Jeb Bush

My brother is an unpopular former president. Vote for me. (Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images News)

Yet the flip side of purity on immigration may be electability. After two terms of a Democratic president, many conservatives — including Tea Partiers — will surely be eager to find a candidate who can actually win the general election. A position on immigration that alienates Hispanics could complicate the GOP's electoral math in swing states like Florida. And candidates with other hard-right positions could alienate moderates more generally.

So if many Tea Party conservatives conclude that a certain candidate is unelectable, they might instead support one whose positions on the issues aren't quite what they'd like. Accordingly, enthusiasm for Cruz — seen as a far-right bomb-thrower — has been muted even among ideologically conservative elites. For instance, Jim Geraghty of National Review wrote earlier this year that Cruz "will easily get elected President of Conservative America," but lists him as a second-tier candidate due to his lack of appeal to moderates.

But the establishment may face some difficulty arguing that their candidates are more electable. Despite being the apparent fundraising favorite, Jeb Bush hasn't been polling particularly strongly. And, as several candidates will surely bring up, party elites called Ronald Reagan too conservative to win as late as March 1980 — and Reagan, of course, proved them quite wrong.

So it's too early to say what conclusions Tea Party conservatives will draw about electability — or whether they'll be willing to take a risk on a very conservative candidate. But the issue is yet another thorny problem that will confront the Tea Partiers as they struggle to get the presidential candidate of their dreams.