As the nation pre­pares for the upcoming midterm elec­tions, it is unclear what effect the recently founded Tea Party move­ment will have in the voting booth. Here, William Mayer, asso­ciate pro­fessor of polit­ical sci­ence at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity, looks at the rise of the Tea Party move­ment and its poten­tial effect on elec­toral pol­i­tics in 2010 and 2012.

Do you expect the Tea Party move­ment to have a con­tin­uing impact on how the midterm elec­tions shake out?

The Tea Party move­ment has already had a sub­stan­tial impact in the Repub­lican pri­maries, leading to the nom­i­na­tion of a number of can­di­dates who wouldn’t have come close to suc­cess in a more typ­ical year. It has also proven to be a potent source of vol­un­teers, activists and con­trib­u­tors. The key ques­tion — still to be answered — is whether some of those can­di­dates are seen to be so extreme or unqual­i­fied as to be inca­pable of win­ning the gen­eral elec­tion, even against rather weak Demo­c­ratic oppo­si­tion. In the longer term, no matter what the Repub­li­cans actu­ally do in the next Con­gress, it is clear that the Democ­rats and many of their allies in the media will attack the Repub­li­cans for being “too extreme.”

Why do you think the Tea Party move­ment has appealed to so many supporters?

The United States has long been known as a country that is sus­pi­cious of big gov­ern­ment, with a much more lim­ited public sector than other indus­trial democ­ra­cies. Obama and the Democ­rats, in my opinion, dra­mat­i­cally mis­un­der­stood the meaning of the 2008 elec­tion, thinking that the public had given them a man­date for all sorts of new gov­ern­ment ini­tia­tives when all the voters were really saying was that they were dis­sat­is­fied with George W. Bush. So it’s no great sur­prise that the Obama poli­cies have gen­er­ated a strong counter-​​reaction.

How has the reac­tion to the Tea Party from both Demo­c­ratic and Repub­lican lead­er­ship evolved over time?

The Repub­lican lead­er­ship has become grad­u­ally more wel­coming to the Tea Party move­ment — for the obvious reason that Tea Party can­di­dates keep win­ning major Repub­lican pri­maries. At this point in the 2010 elec­tion cycle, almost the only thing the Democ­rats can do is attack the Tea Partiers for being too extreme or even racist. I don’t think that tactic will work very well for the Democ­rats, and it won’t sur­prise me if they have to develop a new approach after the election.

When was the last time a move­ment like this shook up the tra­di­tional two-​​party system?

Per­haps the best recent par­allel to the Tea Party move­ment is the anti-​​war move­ment of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Like the Tea Partiers, the anti-​​war move­ment gen­er­ated a lot of enthu­siasm and activism, though some­what less sup­port among the public as a whole. Also like the Tea Party move­ment, the prin­cipal elec­toral impact of the anti-​​war move­ment occurred in one of the par­ties — in that case, the Democ­rats. The anti-​​war forces “took over” Demo­c­ratic pri­maries and local Demo­c­ratic par­ties and replaced older, more tra­di­tional Democ­rats with anti-​​war can­di­dates, cul­mi­nating with the pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion of George McGovern in 1972. Though McGovern was soundly defeated, the Demo­c­ratic Party has never been the same.

What are the prospects for the Tea Party movement’s future?

The future of the Tea Party depends on two things: how suc­cessful their can­di­dates are in the 2010 gen­eral elec­tions; and, even more, how those Tea Party can­di­dates who do win behave in gov­ern­ment. The prin­cipal danger for the Tea Party, in my opinion, is that, much like both the Obama people and the Repub­lican Con­gress of 1995–1996, they will sub­stan­tially over-​​interpret the meaning of their elec­tion and govern in a way that turns off lots of mod­erate and inde­pen­dent voters — and thus guar­an­tees the re-​​election of Barack Obama.