Why the Tea Party Protests Mattered

October 15, 2013
By Doug Gavel, HKS Communications

Political rallies stir passions, but do they impact the results at the ballot box and ultimately on policy choices? Those are the questions underlying a new research paper co-authored by Harvard Kennedy School Assistant Professors David Yanagizawa-Drott and Daniel Shoag. The paper, titled “Do Political Protests Matter? Evidence from the Tea Party Movement,” is published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics.

Yanagizawa-Drott, Shoag and their co-authors collected data from a variety of sources to test their theories relative to a specific case – the so-called “Tax Day Protests” sponsored by the Tea Party on April 15, 2009. The research resulted in several key findings.

“We show that attendance at this initial event had significant consequences for the subsequent strength of the Tea Party movement, it increased public support for Tea Party positions, and it led to more Republican votes in the 2010 U.S. House of Representatives elections,” Yanagizawa-Drott writes. “The protests had a nation-wide effect on the 2010 elections corresponding to an estimated 3.2-5.8 million additional votes for the Republican Party.”

The data also showed that policymaking was also impacted, as incumbents responded to the large protests by voting significantly more conservatively in Congress.

“Together our results show that protests can build political movements that ultimately affect policymaking, and that they do so by influencing political views rather than solely through the revelation of existing political preferences,” argues Yanagizawa-Drott. “What our results really show is that policymaking can ultimately be heavily influenced by political protests, partly by creating public support for the policy positions promoted by the protesters and partly by influencing election outcomes. The evidence also helps explain the underlying causes of the political polarization and paralysis currently taking place in the U.S. Congress. The results indicate that had the Tax Day protests in 2009 not occurred, or if attendance generally had been lower, the observed right-wing shift in the U.S. Congress over the past few years would have been significantly less dramatic.”

David Yanagizawa-Drott is an assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. He is an affiliate of Evidence for Policy Design and the Taubman Center for State and Local Government. His research interests include political economy and economic development, with special focus on social and cultural determinants of political beliefs and behavior.

Daniel Shoag is an assistant professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School and an affiliate of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government. His research focuses on fiscal policy, state and local pension plans, and regional macroeconomics.

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David Yanagizawa-Drott, assistant professor of public policy

David Yanagizawa-Drott, assistant professor of public policy

“The protests had a nation-wide effect on the 2010 elections corresponding to an estimated 3.2-5.8 million additional votes for the Republican Party,"  Yanagizawa-Drott writes.

Daniel Shoag, assistant professor of public policy

Daniel Shoag, assistant professor of public policy