Do political protests matter? Evidence from the Tea Party movement

Reuters

People wave signs at a "tea party" protest on the grounds of the Colorado state capitol in Denver April 15, 2009.

Article Highlights

  • Can protests cause political change, or are they merely symptoms of underlying shifts in policy preferences?

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  • Results show that protests can build political movements that ultimately affect policymaking.

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  • The Tea Party movement rose to prominence through coordinated rallies across the US on Tax Day.

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Abstract: Do Political Protests Matter? Evidence from the Tea Party Movement

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Can protests cause political change, or are they merely symptoms of underlying shifts in policy preferences? We address this question by studying the Tea Party movement in the United States, which rose to prominence through coordinated rallies across the country on Tax Day, April 15, 2009. We exploit variation in rainfall on the day of these rallies as an exogenous source of variation in attendance. We show that good weather at this initial, coordinating event had significant consequences for the subsequent local strength of the movement, increased public support for Tea Party positions, and led to more Republican votes in the 2010 midterm elections. Policymaking was also affected, as incumbents responded to large protests in their district by voting more conservatively in Congress. Our estimates suggest significant multiplier effects: an additional protester increased the number of Republican votes by a factor well above one. Together our results show that protests can build political movements that ultimately affect policymaking, and that these effects arise from influencing political views rather than solely through the revelation of existing political preferences.

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