... A new Washington Post canvass of hundreds of local tea party groups reveals a different sort of organization, one that is not so much a movement as a disparate band of vaguely connected gatherings that do surprisingly little to engage in the political process.
The results come from a months-long effort by The Post to contact every tea party group in the nation, an unprecedented attempt to understand the network of individuals and organizations at the heart of the nascent movement.
There are two tea parties. The one we've known most about has been concocted largely by media and corporate money. The other is consists of something that looks like a widely spread but thin wind cloud hovering over parts of America, virtually invisible in some areas, more visible in others.
Their conservatism, such as it is, ranges from desultory mainstream to radical. Some members are people who watch TV and claim identification with Beck or Palin or another entertainment figure. Others just like to hang out socially and share their discontents.
The local groups stand in contrast to - and, in their minds, apart from - a handful of large national groups that claim the tea party label. Most of those outfits, including FreedomWorks and Tea Party Express, are headed by longtime political players who have used their resources and know-how to help elect a number of candidates.
The findings suggest that the breadth of the tea party may be inflated. The Atlanta-based Tea Party Patriots, for example, says it has a listing of more than 2,300 local groups, but The Post was unable to identify anywhere near that many, despite help from the organization and independent research.
In all, The Post identified more than 1,400 possible groups and was able to verify and reach 647 of them. Each answered a lengthy questionnaire about their beliefs, members and goals. The Post tried calling the others as many as six times. It is unclear whether they are just hard to reach or don't exist.
The Post has, in effect, deflated the rest of the media's inflation of this generation's "red menace." The red has changed sides, but the populist fervors, the righteous anger, and embrace of authoritarianism are similar. That they are (often unwittingly) corporate puppets is what most worries many of us (and some of them, too). According to the Post, 57% of them don't like the association with Freedom Works and Americans for Prosperity.
Mark Meckler, a founding member of the Tea Party Patriots, said: "When a group lists themselves on our Web site, that's a group. That group could be one person, it could be 10 people, it could come in and out of existence - we don't know. We have groups that I know are 15,000 people, and I have groups that I know are five people."That group could be one person, it could be 10 people, it could come in and out of existence - we don't know. We have groups that I know are 15,000 people, and I have groups that I know are five people."
They aren't into social issues as much as they're tied together by concern about the economy. They don't like Democrats; they don't like Republicans either. And they don't like Obama.
Eleven percent said that Obama's race, religion or ethnic background was either a "very important" or "somewhat important" factor in the support their group has received.
Tea party groups are often laughably scarce on the ground:
A number of them appear to be limited to family or friends - the Northern Connecticut Patriots, for instance, counts seven members; the Southeast Wyoming Tea Party Patriots has one.
In the Post report, one thread keeps reappearing, dislike of Obama. The president is (choose one or all of the following), a Muslim, a foreigner, a socialist, unchristian, unamerican, unborn, the unpresident.
Keep this in mind: "Seventy percent of the grass-roots groups said they have not participated in any political campaigning this year."
As a whole, they have no official candidate slates, have not rallied behind any particular national leader, have little money on hand, and remain ambivalent about their goals and the political process in general...
Given all that, do we know how many will vote and who they will vote for?