Apparently, it’s become fashionable to wonder whether fissures in the GOP might eventually grow into a schism, with tea party candidates mounting independent challenges to the GOP in the 2014 elections. Last night, David Frum went a step farther, writing that a tea party exodus might actually help Republicans by freeing them of Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz, allowing the GOP to slide back to the political center. It's a centrist fantasy.
If Republicans think they have a pathway to victory without the tea party, they’re sorely mistaken. The tea party is not some small, fringe element of the Republican coalition. It's not the Buchanan 2000 vote, or something. The tea party is the Republican Party, at least as much as any single constituency can claim, with the possible and overlapping exception of Evangelicals.
According to a July Pew Research survey, Tea Party Republicans make up nearly half (49 percent) of the Republican primary electorate and fully 37 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaners. So long as Democrats remain modestly unified, it is not conceivable that Republicans could compensate for the loss of anything near 37 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaners with gains among moderates and independents. Once a Republican realized there aren’t enough opportunities to win without the tea party, the centrist fantasy would come to an end. Republicans would immediately tack back to their right, in an effort to consolidate the Republican coalition.
Harry Truman’s success, cited by Frum, is the exception, not the rule. In 1948, Truman did face two third-party challenges, but they weren't comparable to jettisoning half of the Repubican base. Thurmond won 2.41 percent of the popular vote, Wallace won 2.37 percent. And when you look at the more significant third party challenges, like Perot, Wallace, or Theodore Roosevelt, it's hard to find one that goes so well for the suffering party.
A more recent is example is the 2010 gubernatorial contest in Colorado, when Tom Tancredo ran as a Constitution Party candidate. Unsurprisingly, neither Tancredo nor his Republican opponent, Dan Maes, made any inroads into the state’s Democratic coalition. As a result, Democrat John Hickenlooper easily prevailed over a divided field, winning by 15 points with just 51 percent of the vote. If conservatives want to divide themselves over tactical issues, that’s exactly the result they should expect.