So all of those Tea Party rallies . . . were they just a bunch of yahoos talking to themselves about the Constitution, or did they actually have an impact? Turns out, the rallies had a pretty impressive impact on the 2010 elections and how Congressional members vote, according to a (very cool) paper from American Enterprise Institute researchers Andreas Madestam, Daniel Shoag, Stan Veuger, and David Yanagizawa-Drott.
But how do they know? I’m always chanting “experiments, experiments, experiments,” but it’s pretty difficult to randomly assign political rally turnout. Not impossible, but very difficult. You’d have to get creative and have a lot of trust from the orgs running things.
The researchers find a clever way around the problem of observational data and causal inference; fewer people turn out to political protests when it rains. And if you have enough rainfall spread over the country, then you have a very nice “exogenous” variable that is changing turnout at the rallies.
Essentially, dear old Mother Nature has randomly assigned different levels of turnout to various Tea Party rallies, and you can analyze the impact of bigger and smaller turnout, independent of “endogenous” variables that drive bigger rallies, like having a more conservative and motivated local population in the first place.
This paper is very, very interesting and worth a closer look. But here are the highlights. The researchers conclude that having a Tea Party protest on Tax Day, April 15, in 2009 increased the number of Republican votes in that area for the 2010 midterm elections and caused their representatives to vote more conservatively.
In fact, they estimate that the protests led to an additional:
- 25,000 to 46,000 local Tea Party organizers
- 170,000 to 310,000 protesters on Tax Day 2010
- $840,000 to $1.54 million in donations to Our Country Deserves Better PAC
- 3.2 to 5.8 million votes in the 2010 House elections
The rallies also:
- Increased the likelihood that incumbent Democratic representatives decided to retire prior to the elections
- Caused Congressmen to vote more conservatively in Congress
- Effects were driven by a persistent increase in the movement’s strength
- Led to more grassroots organizing, to larger subsequent protests and monetary contributions, and to stronger conservative beliefs
- Had significant multiplier effects: for every protester, Republican votes increased by seven to fourteen votes.
That, my friends, is a pretty stunning impact. This bit is worth quoting in full:
Our results suggest that political activism does not derive its usefulness solely from the provision of information or its consumption value, but that the interactions produced at rallies and protests can affect citizens’ social contexts in ways such that a movement for political change persists autonomously. This confirms the importance of social dynamics in networks of citizens for the realization of political change, and seems of relevance not only in the context of representative democracies, but also at the onset of revolutionary movements.
I think this research raises some interesting additional questions. For instance, can a message that references a political protest affect a voter’s opinions? Do candidates win more votes by highlighting political protests in their favor? How can the impact of these rallies be leveraged to even greater effect?