OK, so I'm overstating the case. I apologize. It actually turns out that they aren't extremely popular. Some people like them. Some people don't. And more people dislike the Tea Party than don't. And this isn't a new trend, as this chart from Nate Silver demonstrates:
The blue line represents the percentage approving of the Tea Party, the red line shows disapproval. As you can see, the trend on disapproval is rising, while approvals have pretty much always been flatlining.
So, what kind of person still approves of the Tea Party? Conservatives (58%) and Republicans (61%). Among every other demographic group, support is weak and overtaken by disapproval. Is the rising disapproval a problem for Tea Baggers or is it the steady approval that's the most important thing here? Silver takes a shot at the question:
I've long been of the view that the Tea Party, despite nominating poor candidates in a couple of key races, was a significant net positive for the G.O.P. in 2010, both because it contributed to the "enthusiasm gap" and because it helped an unpopular Republican Party to re-brand itself in never-out-of-style conservative draping. But if the Tea Party ain't over yet, the point in time at which it was an electoral asset for Republicans soon may be.
If I had to guess, I'd say that Tea Party's problems were a no-compromise, bull-in-a-china-shop style of politics and an insular view of what it means to be a "real American." We see the former reflected in the politics of new governors around the country, becoming unpopular in what may be record time by running their states like a dictatorship. In the latter, we see the 'baggers alienate group after group as not being "real Americans," which means they pile up enemies while making no friends. This may be an OK way to run a club, but as a political movement in a democracy, it's a fatal mistake.
Unlike Silver, I don't see that "the Tea Party ain't over yet." In fact, it looks to me like they all got tired and went away once the elections were over. Tea Party presence at union protests in states, for example, have been pathetically small -- especially if you consider the size of the crowds the 'baggers could turn out at their peak. The whole thing's running out of steam and, while that blue line is flat, that support isn't being shown out in the street. It's one thing to tell a pollster you think the Tea Party is a good idea. It's quite another to be active in it.
Then again, the 'baggers are a largely reactionary movement. If there are no liberals office-holders to rail against, then there's no position for them to take. "We're against things!" could easily be their motto. When Democrats are in ascendancy again, maybe they'll put some miles on shoe leather again. But right now, they seem to believe there's no "socialist takeover" to oppose, so there's no reason to be active. That blue line may be steady, but the evidence on the street shows that Tea Partiers aren't all that excited about things anymore.
Whatever the reasons, it's becoming more and more clear that the Tea Party just ain't what it used to be. And that steady blue line is trending -- ever so gradually -- down.