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Conservatives and Party Labels

Jacob R. Neiheisel

The 2006 midterm elections saw Republicans lose control of both the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate in the midst of sagging poll numbers for their party’s presumptive leader. President George W. Bush, and an unpopular war in Iraq (Kuh- nhenn, 2006). Two years later, the 2008 elections marked the GOP’s loss of the presidency and further declines in their numbers in both chambers of Congress. These outcomes had a number of observers talking of realignment and the possible creation of something like a permanent Democratic majority. Political scientist Larry Sabato, for instance, suggested that 2008 looks to be a realigning election (Koppelnran, 2009). While other commentators were less certain about the staying power of the Obama coalition and whether the 2008 election was a sign of a sea change in American politics (e.g., Marsico, 2008; Rothenberg, 2008), there was a general sense that the Democrats were ascendant on a number of fronts.

The 2010 midterm elections forced many to re-evaluate such determinations as being premature. The Democrats lost a near-historic 63 seats in the House and 6 in the Senate. The GOP also gained control of a number of state legislatures across the country—a reversal of the pro-Democratic trend that appeared to be gaining momentum in 2008 (Rothenberg, 2008). While many political scientists saw such developments coming (e.g., Bafumi, Erikson, & Wlezien, 2010; Campbell, 2010), as the president’s party nearly always loses seats in midterm elections (Campbell, 1987), few academic observers were able to predict the magnitude of the Democrats’ defeat in 2010 (Brady, Fiorina, & Wilkins, 2011). Postmortem analyses focused on a wide range of election-specific factors that together conspired to make the scope of the Democratic Party’s losses quite so complete (e.g., Koger & Lebo, 2012; Nyhan, McGhee, Sides, Masket, & Greene, 2012).

By all indications something was different about the Republican candidates who would emerge in the early years of the Obama administration under the banner of the Tea Party. As Williamson and colleagues write, “the Tea Party allowed for the rebranding of conservative Republicanism and gave activists an unsullied standard to mobilize behind” (2011, p. 35; emphasis in original). According to this view, the Tea Party label was “fashioned at a moment of challenge for conservatives in and around the GOP, when the ‘Republican’ label was tarnished. . . [and] helped to sharpen and refocus conservative activism in our time” (Williamson, Skocpol, & Coggin, 2011, p. 37). While Williamson and her collaborators focused on conservative activists at the grassroots, it seems reasonable to expect that similar etforts at rebranding were undertaken at the elite level. Many candidates from both parties have long engaged in etforts at distancing themselves from their party’s brand name when such actions were believed to suit their immediate electoral needs (Jarvis, 2005; Krehbiel, 1998).

While some such shifts in emphasis are connected to changes in policy positions, most often we observe elite efforts at moving popular perceptions of the parties rather than the substance of their appeals. Hale (1995) notes, for instance, that the Democratic Leadership Council’s attempts at shifting the Democratic Party back to the political center in the mid-1980s focused first and foremost on changing the image of the party, illustrating that symbols, such as political labels, can “substitute for political action” (Rotunda, 1986, p. 7).

It is therefore worth attending to the evolving language used by Republican candidates for the U.S. Congress as they turned what appeared to be disastrous defeats in 2006 and 2008 into a victory in 2010 that created a majority that they would manage to maintain over the next three election cycles (2012, 2014, and 2016). Was the emergence of a new breed of Republican at the root of this transformation? If so, what labels did these new Republicans use to help signal how they were different from other Republicans? Can we identify a distinctly new type of Republican congressional candidate based on how such candidates employed partisan and ideological symbols on the campaign trail?

In this chapter, I seek to address these questions using advertising data on congressional candidates’ use of different political labels, including partisan and ideological “brand names” (Neiheisel & Niebler, 2013) as well as the “Tea Party” label. In addition to describing the relative frequency with which Republican candidates for Congress employed different political symbols in their campaign advertising over the time period in question (2006-2014), I also seek to illuminate the determinants of label use among Republicans. In doing so, I explore whether candidates running as Republicans engaged in similar rhetorical strategies, regardless of political experience, or if there is, indeed, an identifiable new breed of candidate in the Grand Old Party.

Party and Ideological Labels as Symbols: A Supply-Side Look at Candidate Cue-Giving

This chapter adopts what has been termed a “supply-side” perspective on the provision of cues by elites (Tessin, 2007; see also Jarvis, 2001, 2005; Neiheisel,

2016; Neiheisel & Niebler, 2013, 2015; Vavreck, 2001). Although it is commonly assumed that party and ideological cues are always accessible to members of the electorate, investigations into the extent to which candidates employ such cues in their communications with the voting public have shown that overt references to party or ideology' are fairly rare (Druckman, Kifer, & Parkin, 2009; Kenski, Filer, & Conway-Silva, 2017; Krehbiel, 1998; Neiheisel, 2016; Neiheisel & Niebler, 2013; Vavreck, 2001). Party labels are also available to voters on the ballot in most jurisdictions for most races (even forjudge in some states—see Burnett & Tiede, 2015) as they go about the process of casting their votes. With the possible exception of extreme late-deciders, however, most voters form opinions about candidates well in advance of the day of the election.

Supply-side approaches to political cuing acknowledge that not all members of the electorate experience the campaign in the same way. Some simply are not paying a great deal of attention. As Key (1966) observed, voters get out of campaigns what the candidates put into them—nothing more, and nothing less. “The voice of the people is but an echo,” Key (1966, p. 2) wrote, as “the output of the echo chamber bears an inevitable and invariable relation to the input.” From this vantage point, voters can only use cues to shape their attitudes toward the candidates if they are paying attention to what is going on in the information environment and the candidates are utilizing partisan and ideological labels in their campaign communications.

But candidates are strategic about how they employ cues on the campaign trail (Jarvis, 2005). Vavreck (2001), for instance, identifies a number of candidate- and constituency-based factors that serve as determinants of whether party or ideological cues are injected into the campaign. Incumbents are less likely to use party labels in their televised campaign advertisements (Vavreck, 2001) and on their campaign websites (Druckman et al., 2009), as are those vying for an open seat (Neiheisel & Niebler, 2013). Not surprisingly, candidates are more willing to employ party and ideological cues when they are running in a state or district that represents friendly partisan territory—as measured by the presidential vote in the jurisdiction in previous elections. Those running in contests that are rated as being more competitive are also more likely to employ partisan cues (Druckman et al., 2009; Neiheisel & Niebler, 2013). In addition, Republicans tend to engage in the use of ideological (but not partisan) rhetoric at higher rates than do Democrats (Neiheisel & Niebler, 2013; Vavreck, 2001).

As Neiheisel and Niebler (2013) demonstrate, the institutional environment in which candidates must campaign also shapes their willingness to employ their own party’s label in their TV ads. Periods of unified government, for instance, often see candidates making greater use of partisan labels given that it is typically clearer what each party stands for under such conditions. For better or worse, members of the party in charge of the entirety of the government are likely to “own” both the perceived successes and perceived failures of their party, as “the cry to throw the rascals out has generally identified the rascals in party terms” (Stokes, 1975, p. 183). In such instances members of the majority and minority party alike embrace partisan rhetoric, thereby providing voters with informational cues precisely when they are of the greatest utility and bear the most meaning.

Druckman et al. (2009) explain elements of this particular constellation of findings with reference to candidates’ relative orientations toward risk-taking. The use of party and ideological labels offers candidates the prospect of both risks and rewards. On the reward side of the ledger, party cues help candidates to cut the transaction costs of communicating with the electorate, as the party label contains a great deal of performance- and policy-relevant information in a neat package that, at least in the context of paid television advertising, is relatively cheap (Vavreck, 2001). For instance, a candidate could produce an ad that utilizes every bit of the 30-second spot to detail his or her stand on the issues. Alternatively, that same candidate could simply drop a party cue into the ad and use the remainder of his or her time to pursue other communicative strategies. Of course, this approach brings with it the very real possibility of enhancing conformity costs if there are points on which the candidate would like to differentiate or distance himself or herself from the party. For challengers or younger members of Congress without much in the way of a track record, however, the potential rewards may offset the conformity costs associated with running as a partisan or an ideologue (or of couching his or her candidacy in partisan or ideological terms). Partisan and ideological cues have long been thought to be of particular utility for voters (Downs, 1957; Popkin, 1991), so it would make sense that candidates looking for an efficient means of conveying information to the electorate would invoke both kinds of labels on the campaign trail.

The risks associated with the conformity costs of explicitly connecting one’s candidacy with a particular party or ideology while on the stump are not the only dangers that confront candidates faced with a choice concerning what cues, if any, to employ in their paid media. Shifts in the electoral value of a party’s “brand name” can make candidates running in years where the national tide appears to be turning against their party reluctant to embrace such labels. Krehbiel (1998, p. 223) noted, instead of a “treasured brand name,” the party label can at times be a “bad luck charm” from which legislators attempt to distance themselves on the campaign trail. Some of the only evidence that we have on candidates’ use of party labels on the campaign trail shows that the provision of party cues varies from year-to-year in such a way so as to suggest that candidates are evaluating the political climate going into a campaign and, in addition to making strategic decisions about whether to retire (if an incumbent) or enter the race at all (if a potential challenger or candidate for an open seat), candidates are also strategic about the content of their campaign communications in ways that track with our expectations about the likelihood of a partisan “wave” election (see Neiheisel & Niebler, 2013).

Thus, while previous research has left us with a good sense of how certain candidate (e.g., incumbent versus challenger status), constituency (e.g., the district- or state-level vote for president in the previous election), and national

(e.g., perceptions of the state of the national political climate) factors shape the use of partisan and ideological cues on the campaign trail, we get little insight from the existing literature regarding the degree to which the emergence of an intraparty faction or social movement might change the type of partisan and ideological labels oifered by candidates running under the party’s aegis. It is for this reason that the remainder of this chapter explores how the labels employed by Republican candidates for the U.S. House or the U.S. Senate in their televised campaign advertisements evolved over the time period from 2006 to 2014—a period in political time that witnessed the rise of the Tea Party.

Data and Methods

Information on the number of ads aired by Republican candidates for the U.S. Congress over the period from 2006 to 2014 and the content of those ads were drawn from a series of datasets compiled by the Wisconsin Advertising Project (WAP) (in 2008) and the Wesleyan Media Project (WMP) (in 2006, 2010, 2012, and 2014). In 2006, the WMP tracked candidates’ televised political ads in 100 of the nation’s top media markets (Fowler, Franz, & Ridout, 2017a). In all other years (2008, 2010—2014), the datasets put together by the WMP and the WAP offer a look at the advertisements aired in ever)' single media market in the United States (Fowler, Franz, & Ridout, 2014, 2015, 2017b; Goldstein, Niebler, Neiheisel, & Holleque, 2011).

The WAP and WMP coded each unique ad aired for whether the favored candidate (the candidate being promoted in the ad) mentioned his or her party, his or her opponent’s party both parties, or his or her party—but only in the “paid for by” (PFB) disclaimer at the end of the ad. The WMP also coded whether the favored candidate used either the liberal or conservative label in a given ad. The WAP, for whatever reason, did not do so in 2008—the only year from 1998 to 2014 that does not include such information in the dataset. It was from these datasets that I was able to calculate (1) the mean number of ad airings that featured the use of partisan labels, (2) the percentage of GOP candidates who employed a reference to the parties in some form in at least one advertisement, (3) the mean percentage of airings that featured different (partisan and ideological) label usages, and (4) the proportion of each candidate’s total number of ad airings that contained different party or ideological labels. In this chapter, I focus exclusively on candidate-sponsored ads or ads that were coordinated with the Republican Party.

After describing the data, I go on to estimate a series of quasi-binomial models predicting the proportion of each candidate’s televised political advertising containing certain labels. Those labels are Democrat, Republican, Liberal, and Conservative. The WMP did code for whether an ad contained a reference to the Tea Party, but such references were actually quite rare. Across the three years that the WMP coded for the presence of the Tea Party label (2010—2014), only four candidates made any mention of it in their general election advertising—the focus of the investigation here. I concentrate on label use in the general election so as to maintain comparability with previous studies (Neiheisel & Niebler, 2013).

Each model specification contains a series of dummy variables capturing whether the candidate airing ads was the incumbent, whether he or she was running for an open seat, whether the race was for the U.S. Senate, and whether he or she was a freshman legislator. I include this last independent variable in an attempt to capture any differences in the way that less experienced legislators employ partisan and ideological labels on the campaign trail. Each model also includes a series of year dummy variables in an effort to account for temporal fluctuations in the perceived electoral value of different partisan and ideological labels (Neiheisel & Niebler, 2013; see also Basinger & Ensley, 2007).

All models also include variables tapping district partisanship—as measured by the Republican share of the vote in the last presidential election—and Cook ratings—an ex ante measure of district (or state) competitiveness. Data on the GOP candidate’s share of the vote in the district in the previous presidential election were compiled by the Swing State Project and, later, by Daily Kos Elections. Cook ratings were collected directly from The Cook Political Report’s website for U.S. House and U.S. Senate races in 2008, 2012, and 2014. Ratings for U.S. House races in 2006 and 2010 were culled from data compiled by James Campbell (see Ratings for U.S. Senate races in 2006 came from archived versions of Electoral Vote Predictor (see http:// while 2010 competitiveness ratings for Senate races were obtained from National Public Radio’s 2010 Election Scorecard. There were also a few observations in the ads data from candidates running in special elections. Where expert ratings of the competitiveness of these races were not available, I made my own determination based on media reports going in to the contest.

Finally, in an effort to evaluate whether an identifiable “new breed” of Republican candidate emerged over the time period under consideration, I also included a variable in one set of models that captures whether a particular candidate was endorsed by the Tea Party (Bailey, Mummolo, & Noel, 2012; Bullock & Hood, 2012; Karpowitz, Monson, Patterson, & Pope, 2011). In 2010, this variable was coded from a report on Tea Party-backed candidates compiled by ABC News ( winners-losers/story?id= 12023076). Similar lists of Tea Party-affiliated or Tea Party-endorsed candidates were constructed by the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights (IREHR) in 2012 and 2014 ( tea-party-endorsed-candidates-and-election-2012/; www.irehr.oig/2014/11/06/ tea-party-election-2014/). The variable Tea Party Endorsed therefore takes a value of one if a candidate who aired ads in a given year was included on one of these lists and a zero otherwise.

Descriptive Results

I begin my analysis by describing the percentage of Republican general election candidates who aired at least one televised political advertisement featuring some type of reference to party and the mean number of individual airings employing a party label in some way. Figure 3.1 demonstrates that candidates’ use of partisan cues in their campaign communications varies in ways that track with commonly accepted understandings of the relative advantage held by the party going in to each contest. In 2006, less than a third of GOP-afliliated candidates for Congress used any type of party label in their televised political advertising. That figure dropped below 20% in 2008 and 2012—years in which the Republican presidential candidate lost the election and the party ended up losing seats in Congress. In both 2010 and 2014, however, roughly 35% of Republican congressional candidates used partisan rhetoric in at least some of their TV ads. As described by Neiheisel and Niebler (2013), the previous high-water mark was 2004—a year that saw roughly a third of Republican candidates using party labels in some form in their televised political advertising. These years (2010 and 2014) correspond with pro-Republican waves that saw the party gain large majorities in Congress. In light of these findings, it might be tempting to say that the use of partisan rhetoric translates into victories at the polls. A far more likely storyline, however, revolves around candidates anticipating a coming partisan wave and attempting to harness it to the best of their ability by injecting partisan cues into the information environment.

As the right panel in Figure 3.1 shows, most of these mentions were of the favored candidates’ own party. The mean percentage of airings featuring the Republican label varied over this time period from a low of about 4% to a high of roughly 8%. Once again, the pattern on display here tracks with pre-election expectations regarding the prevailing (partisan) political winds in the country at the time. In 2010, for instance, Republican candidates increased the presence of their own party’s label in their advertising on average from a low in 2008. Two years later, those running on the GOP brand drew down their use of the party’s label once again, only to return to 2010-like levels of partisan branding in 2014. Curiously, Republican candidates’ use of their opponent’s party label has been steady or declining over this time period. Just about 2% (or less) of all ads put up on the airwaves by Republican candidates mentioned the Democratic Party throughout the period under observation. This pattern does not depart from what we have witnessed in previous years. Fewer still mentioned both parties or included the Republican label in the disclaimer at the end of the ad.

Flow have Republican candidates used ideological labels in more recent years? Figure 3.2 displays the mean percentage of all airings featuring either the conservative label or the liberal label in 2006, 2010, 2012, and 2014. Since 2006, GOP candidates’ use of the conservative label in their televised political advertising has generally trended upward. About 4% of Republican candidates’ ad airings

The Percentage of GOP Candidates, Mean Number of Airings, and Percentage of Airings Mentioning Various Party Labels

FIGURE 3.1 The Percentage of GOP Candidates, Mean Number of Airings, and Percentage of Airings Mentioning Various Party Labels

The Mean Percentage of Airings that Mention Ideology by Year

FIGURE 3.2 The Mean Percentage of Airings that Mention Ideology by Year

included a reference to the conservative label in 2006. Use of the conservative label reached its zenith two years later in 2010—a year in which roughly 9% of all airings put up on the airwaves by Republican candidates featured the conservative label. These levels are higher than they have been in past years (Neiheisel & Niebler, 2013).

Curiously, use of the liberal label by Republican candidates trended downward over this time period. Relative to the 1998-2004 era, however, references to liberals are considerably up overall (Neiheisel & Niebler, 2013). With the benefit of advertising data from the country’s 100 largest media market, 2006 now represents the high-water mark of this particular rhetorical strategy' over the whole stretch from 1998 to 2014. In the following section, I explore the determinants of label use among Republican candidates in a multivariate framework to ascertain whether the year-to-year variability witnessed in the above-described figures holds after controlling for factors relating to the candidates themselves, the contests in which they were running, or constituency-centered forces.

Multivariate Results

The story' that emerges from the model estimates detailed in Table 3.1 reinforces much of what is already known about candidates’ use of partisan and ideological labels on the campaign trail. Republicans running in districts that exhibited greater degrees of support for the Republican presidential candidate in the previous election were more likely to air ads featuring the Republican label. The same

TABLE 3.1 Determinants of Partisan and Ideological Label Use in GOP Candidates’ Televised Political Advertising, 2006-2014 (Quasi-Binomial Models)






Cook Rating

  • 0.052
  • (0.077)
  • -0.280***
  • (0.077)
  • -0.217***
  • (0.061)
  • -0.145
  • (0.106)

District partisanship

  • 0.059***
  • (0.016)
  • 0.008
  • (0.018)
  • 0.017
  • (0.013)
  • 0.108***
  • (0.023)

Incumbent status

  • -0.235
  • (0.371)
  • -0.986***
  • (0.364)
  • -0.428
  • (0.310)
  • -1.057*
  • (0.599)


  • -0.610**
  • (0.245)
  • 0.632**
  • (0.245)
  • -0.222
  • (0.188)
  • 0.291
  • (0.330)

Open seat

  • 0.047
  • (0.328)
  • -0.852***
  • (0.315)
  • 0.222
  • (0.253)
  • 0.125
  • (0.420)


  • -0.874*
  • (0.522)
  • -0.514
  • (0.424)
  • 0.562**
  • (0.276)

1.398** (0.544)


  • -0.304
  • (0.423)
  • -0.297
  • (0.401)


  • 0.434
  • (0.393)
  • -0.500
  • (0.410)
  • -0.284
  • (0.265)

1.238** (0.536)


  • 0.576
  • (0.403)
  • -0.207
  • (0.386)
  • -0.533**
  • (0.267)
  • 0.534
  • (0.595)


  • 0.292
  • (0.389)
  • -0.744
  • (0.406)
  • -0.591**
  • (0.262)
  • 0.453
  • (0.559)


  • -(>.491***
  • (1.162)
  • 2.723**
  • (1.199)
  • -2.383***
  • (0.887)
  • -9.223***
  • (1.618)






***p < .01, **/> < .05, *p < .10

is true of the conservative label. Similarly, Republican candidates running in districts or states that were projected to lean Democratic were less likely to employ either the Democratic or liberal label in their televised political ads.

Consistent with Druckman et al.’s (2009) work highlighting the degree to which comfort with risk shapes candidates’ communication strategies, incumbents are less likely to use certain cues—namely, the Democratic and conservative labels. Those running for open seats are also less likely to feature the Democratic label in their TV ads.

Other factors offer a bit more of a mixed bag across different models. GOP candidates vying for a Senate seat, for instance, are less likely to employ their own party’s label but are more likely to refer to their (Democratic) opponent’s party. Similarly, freshman members of Congress are less likely to feature the Republican label in their advertising but are more likely to make reference to both ideological labels. This is the first hint that we get that there might be something to the claim that there is indeed an identifiable “new breed” of Republican congressional candidates—one that eschews more traditional partisan rhetoric for ideological warfare.

Few of the year dummy variables reach conventional levels of statistical significance. This fact suggests that many of the year-to-year differences observed in the descriptive analysis previously may actually be a function of candidate- or constituency-based factors. There are some notable exceptions to this overall trend, however, as relative to the reference year (2006); GOP candidates were less likely to mention the liberal label in both 2012 and 2014—a pattern that is shown in Figure 3.2.

While the effect of the dummy variable capturing freshman status suggests that younger candidates are engaging in a different presentation of self than are more established members and challengers, it remains to be seen whether affiliation with an intraparty faction like the Tea Party shapes how Republican candidates use partisan and ideological labels on the campaign trail. To test this prospect, I estimated a series of models that, while otherwise identical in specification to the ones detailed in Table 3.1, also include a dummy variable tapping whether a candidate was endorsed by the Tea Party. Although this necessarily cuts down the dataset to some extent (the Tea Party only became a player on the political scene after the election of Barack Obama in 2008), the inclusion of this variable in the models allows a look at whether an identifiable new breed of Republican emerged over this time period owing to the arrival of the Tea Party.

Even with fewer years of data, the overall pattern of results displayed in Table 3.2 is remarkably similar in terms of both statistical significance and direction. There is one particularly notable exception to this general trend, however, and that is with reference to the effect of freshman status on members’ use of the types of partisan and ideological labels under examination here. After including a variable tapping Tea Party endorsement, freshman status is no longer significant in two of the three models in which it was previously shown to influence the provision of certain cues (Table 3.1). And while there are, of course, other explanations for this observed constellation of results (e.g., the coefficients associated with freshman status might be estimated with less precision owing to a drop in the number of cases), the fact that little else moves around in the models certainly suggests that the effect of freshman status shown previously was intertwined with a Tea Party effect.

As the model estimates displayed in Table 3.2 demonstrate, Tea Party endorsees, it seems, are both more likely to employ what has been termed “anti-liberal rhetoric” (Neiheisel, 2016) on the campaign trail and less likely to employ the conservative label in their spot advertising. This latter finding is particularly stunning given the reputation that elements of the movement itself gained for holding a conservative identity (Skocpol & Williamson, 2013, p. 81). Recent work by Parker and Barreto (2013), however, has questioned the degree to which Tea Party supporters are simply conservatives. They found, for instance, that the content of Tea Party websites differed substantially from the content presented on the National Review Online—a fairly mainstream conservative outlet. If the results presented here regarding the types of labels that Tea Party elites (candidates endorsed

TABLE 3.2 Determinants of Partisan and Ideological Label Use in GOP Candidates’ Televised Political Advertising with a Special Emphasis on the Effects of Tea Party Endorsement, 2010-2014 (Quasi-Binomial Models)






Cook rating

  • -0.071
  • (0.098)
  • -0.425"*
  • (0.118)
  • -0.300***
  • (0.072)
  • -0.200
  • (0.141)

District partisanship

  • 0.053"
  • (0.021)
  • -0.009
  • (0.025)
  • 0.003
  • (0.015)
  • 0.107***
  • (0.030)

Incumbent status

  • -0.635
  • (0.507)
  • -0.958*
  • (0.525)
  • -0.200
  • (0.361)
  • -1.136
  • (0.789)


  • -0.636"
  • (0.312)
  • 1.422"*
  • (0.407)
  • -0.096
  • (0.219)
  • 0.364
  • (0.424)

Open seat

  • -0.023
  • (0.386)
  • -0.703***
  • (0.378)
  • 0.279
  • (0.278)
  • 0.056
  • (0.538)


  • -1.024
  • (0.825)
  • -0.256
  • (0.684)
  • 0.515
  • (0.338)
  • 1.168*
  • (0.704)

Tea Part)' Endorsed

  • 0.165
  • (0.290)
  • 0.033
  • (0.328)
  • 0.564***
  • (0.214)
  • -0.942*
  • (0.448)


  • 0.158
  • (0.350)
  • 0.510
  • (0.370)
  • -0.253
  • (0.247)
  • -0.701
  • (0.497)


  • -0.090
  • (0.290)
  • 0.044
  • (0.328)
  • -0.334
  • (0.275)
  • -0.620
  • (0.487)


  • -5.326"*
  • (1.309)
  • -2.764*
  • (1.408)
  • -2.134"
  • (0.875)
  • -7.480***
  • (1.821)






***p < .01, **/> < .05, *p < .10

by Tea Party-affiliated organizations) employed on the campaign trail are any indication, the movement can hardly claim to have taken up the conservative mantle. Rather, it seems that Tea Party-endorsed congressional hopefuls defined their own candidacies not in conservative terms but in opposition to liberalism. The language used by the Tea Party is therefore troubling not because, as one critic noted, “its ideology is so individualistic” (Elliott, 2017, p. 3) but because its elites do not define themselves as the progenitors of a new kind of conservatism, or even as the keepers of an older tradition. Instead, they seem to have cultivated an image as a force that simply stands in opposition to another ideological tradition.

Then again, Tea Party-endorsed candidates may simply be taking an oft- employed campaign tactic to the next level. The liberal label has been under attack from Republicans for decades. Democrats, at the same time, have exhibited a great deal of reluctance to defend the term (see Jarvis, 2005; Neiheisel, 2016). Whether a conscious effort to define themselves, first and foremost, as opponents of liberalism or as a calculated campaign strategy, one thing seems clear: Tea Party-endorsed candidates pressed the attack on the liberal label in their spot advertising over this time period.

The Mean Percentage of Airings That Mention the Liberal Label by Year and Tea Party Endorsement Status

FIGURE 3.3 The Mean Percentage of Airings That Mention the Liberal Label by Year and Tea Party Endorsement Status

Figure 3.3 illustrates this fact more starkly, as it depicts the mean percentage of airings from GOP candidates featuring the liberal label in 2010, 2012, and 2014 broken out by Tea Party affiliation. In the election immediately following the birth of the Tea Party as a political movement, Tea Party-endorsed GOP candidates and those who were not outwardly affiliated with the movement were virtually indistinguishable in terms of their use of the liberal label— with a slight edge actually going to the group that was not endorsed by the Tea Party. The data from years 2012 and 2014, on the other hand, exhibit a sharp divergence between the two groups, as Tea Party-endorsed candidates increased the degree to which they employed the liberal label in their TV ads at the same time as non-Tea Partiers drew down their use of such rhetoric (see Figure 3.3).


Despite scholarly speculation that the Tea Party provided Republicans with a new standard around which to rally in the wake of a long period of brand decline that culminated in the their losses in the 2008 election, I find little evidence that

Republican candidates for the U.S. Congress overtly embraced the Tea Party moniker in their televised campaign advertising. Only a handful of general election candidates even made mention of the Tea Party in their ads.

This does not mean, however, that the appearance of the Tea Party did not signal the emergence of a new breed of Republican. As I show here, Tea Party- endorsed candidates were both more likely to engage in assaults on the liberal label in their televised political advertising and less likely to invoke the conservative label than were other Republicans. In a way, then, the Tea Party did offer elements of the Republican Party a way to rebrand themselves, not as members of a conservative movement (Williamson, 2011), but as a group defined in opposition to liberalism—“a term that,” as Jarvis notes, “resides in the country’s mind as the evil twin of conservatism” (2005, p. 187). In spite of recent protests to the contrary from conservative writers such as Dreher (2017), the evidence presented here suggests that a prominent faction within the Republican Party—as represented by Tea Party-affiliated candidates—has eschewed the use of the conservative label in favor of attacks on the liberal label.

At the same time, the percentage of Republican candidates employing partisan labels in their televised political advertising is up modestly from previous years. The parties certainly have not faded from the lexicons that the candidates draw upon in communicating with the electorate, but I for one expected a greater uptick in the use of partisan labels and symbols given the widespread perception that American politics is becoming more polarized along partisan lines. Nevertheless, the parties are still very much a part of the discourse surrounding the candidacies of Republicans running for Congress. Whether they continue to live on in the public imagination, however, may depend on whether the new breed of Republican candidates represent a brief departure from past practices or are the future of the party.

Discussion Questions

  • 1. What does the shift away from the use of the conservative label and the embrace of anti-liberal rhetoric among Tea Party-endorsed members of the Republican Party mean for the future of conservatism in America?
  • 2. How do voters make sense of political labels such as “liberal,” “conservative,” or, increasingly, “socialist”?
  • 3. What are some of the effects of party labels on the electorate? Does the provision of partisan and ideological cues on the campaign trail by politicians and their surrogates help to shape voters’ understandings of the political world? If so, in what ways?


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