When the tea party movement came to prominence in the summer of 2009, adherents proclaimed they were guided by conservative principles forgotten in the big-spending years of George W. Bush. Republicans who didn’t adhere to their strict ideological interpretation of the Constitution were labeled RINOs (Republicans in name only). The tea partiers’ stubborn demands and obstructionism so exasperated President Obama in 2011 that he snapped, “Can they say yes to anything?”
In 2016 after a divisive GOP primary, the tea party vote has unified behind nominee Donald Trump, even though he in many ways defies the ideological purity that once defined the movement. But Trump and his big-government populism isn’t just winning their votes; he’s also winning their donations, a sign that the money behind the movement will remain a force in American politics long after Election Day.
A new analysis provided exclusively to VICE News confirms that since Trump began soliciting donations in May, tea party donors have been propelling his campaign. According to Crowdpac, a nonpartisan political crowdfunding startup, more than 6,400 of Trump’s financial backers previously gave to one of the six main tea party PACs since 2009, more than any other candidate in the race including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a favorite of the movement.
Since Trump was initially self-funding his campaign, he did not start raising money until nearly a year after declaring his candidacy. Despite the late start, Trump has raised more money overall from more tea party donors than any other candidate. Over 20 percent of donors to the tea party PACs have given to Trump, pouring $8.3 million into his campaign through the end of September, besting his 2016 rivals.
The Tea Party has now officially become the Trump Party
Trump’s financial backers are also the most partisan major-party donors in recent history. Crowdpac quantifies where the candidate falls along the ideological spectrum by sorting through the donors’ past political-giving practices. If a candidate mostly receives donations from people who give money to both parties, the candidate’s score will reflect a moderate ideology (about a 5 on a scale of 1 to 10).
Most presidential candidates expand their donor base after clinching the nomination, but Trump’s donor base has instead gone further to the right. On a 1-10 scale with 1 being most liberal and 10 being most conservative, Trump currently is at 8.3. By contrast, Ronald Reagan measured 7.3.
Based on the flow of campaign dollars, what mattered to the conservative movement in 2009 may no longer apply. The Tea Party has now officially become the Trump Party.
Trump’s ability to galvanize these grassroots donors extends beyond his own candidacy. Surveying all of the country’s congressional races, the candidate with donors most like Trump’s was Paul Nehlen, last summer’s conservative challenger to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.
The money devoted to oust Ryan reflects how much Trump has changed the tea party. In 2010, Ryan was a rising star in the conservative movement, proposing an ambitious and controversial overhaul of the government program Medicare and repeatedly criticizing the Obama administration for the ballooning debt.
Now the tea party is supporting a candidate who says Medicare and Social Security should not be reformed or overhauled. Trump doesn’t specify how he would pay for his expensive policy proposals. When Trump and Ryan clashed this election year over everything from policy proposals to a video featuring Trump bragging about groping women, the grassroots often sided with Trump. At an event in his home state of Wisconsin, Ryan was booed for disinviting Trump after the video leaked to the press. And a crowd at a recent Trump rally in Green Bay chanted “Paul Ryan sucks.”
Given Trump’s takeover of the tea party, how will the GOP move forward after Election Day if he loses? A much-buzzed-about article in the conservative magazine Commentary in October laid out one path. “Republicans of all stripes must be made to acknowledge and accept that Trumpism is an experiment that failed,” Noah Rothman argued, adding, “Trumpism exists at odds with conservatism.” It would seem that many conservatives disagree.