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Did the IRS Win the Election for Obama?

Stan Veuger of the American Enterprise Institute and a group of colleagues conducted a study which has led him to conclude that IRS scrutiny of Tea Party groups prior to the 2012 election reduced turnout and led to Barack Obama’s victory.

In a new research paper, Andreas Madestam (from Stockholm University), Daniel Shoag and David Yanagizawa-Drott (both from the Harvard Kennedy School), and I set out to find out how much impact the Tea Party had on voter turnout in the 2010 election. We compared areas with high levels of Tea Party activity to otherwise similar areas with low levels of Tea Party activity, using data from the Census Bureau, the FEC, news reports, and a variety of other sources. We found that the effect was huge: the movement brought the Republican Party some 3 million-6 million additional votes in House races.That is an astonishing boost, given that all Republican House candidates combined received fewer than 45 million votes.

Veuger goes on to make a key assumption that I could not find in the study. (The study is about the impact of citizen protests on increased voter turnout, using the Tea Party as its key example. It gives a great deal of attention to the effect of rainfall on the success of protest events, with accompanying mathematical formulas). So I assume this is Vueger speaking for himself and not for his colleagues:

The data show that had the Tea Party groups continued to grow at the pace seen in 2009 and 2010, and had their effect on the 2012 vote been similar to that seen in 2010, they would have brought the Republican Party as many as 5 – 8.5 million votes compared to Obama’s victory margin of 5 million.

But the IRS’s focus on Tea Party non-profits, he says, interrupted that pace of growth. He provides no evidence for that assumption before jumping to another one: the IRS’s interest in Tea Party non-profits must have been at the direction of Obama’s operatives or “it may just be that a bureaucracy dominated by liberals picked up on not-so-subtle dog whistles from its political leadership.”

As a consequence, the founders, members, and donors of new Tea Party groups found themselves incapable of exercising their constitutional rights, and the Tea Party’s impact was muted in the 2012 election cycle.

There are two problems with this conclusion. The first problem is that the popular vote for GOP House candidates in 2012 was 58 million compared to 2010’s 45 million. Instead of being incapable of exercising their constitutional rights, 13 million more Tea Party-influenced voters apparently were very capable of exercising their rights. Of course, 2012 was a presidential election year which always produces a higher vote. But a 28 percent surge in voting can hardly be described as a “muted” impact.

Moreover, the GOP’s share of the 2012 House vote was six million more than in the previous presidential cycle in 2008. Vueger claims the Tea Party should have produced 5-8 million more votes in 2012, and it looks like that’s exactly what it did, substantially increasing the GOP’s totals over 2008 and 2010. So what’s this business about the IRS?

There’s a second problem. The IRS was focused on 501(c)3 non-profits. Veuger quotes one activist, as recounted in the Wall St. Journal:

As Toby Marie Walker, who runs the Waco Tea Party, which filed for tax-exempt status in 2010 but didn’t receive approval until two months ago, recounted recently: “Our donors dried up. It was intimidating and time-consuming.”

The American Ideas Institute, which publishes TAC, is a non-profit. So is the American Enterprise Institute, where Veuger is employed.  So Veuger and I know something about tax-exempt non-profits.

We both know they are not allowed to to engage in political campaigns. He and I can sympathize with any organization whose “donors dried up.”  However, if those donations were expected — in any way — to be used for partisan purposes, the IRS was right to examine them. Non-profits can use tax-exempt money to increase voter turnout as a civic effort. But they are not allowed even to endorse candidates, much less campaign for them. It seems like an oversight on Veuger’s part not to acknowledge that some Tea Party groups in their exuberance were trampling over the clearly painted line that he and I both know so well, thereby assuring the interest of law enforcement agencies such as the IRS.

Peggy Noonan on Friday touted Vueger’s spin on the study (which she clearly did not read) and seemed especially taken with the theory that it was a Democratic voter suppression effort:

Think about the sheer political facts of the president’s 2012 victory. The first thing we learned, in the weeks after the voting, was that the Obama campaign was operating with a huge edge in its technological operation—its vast digital capability and sophistication. The second thing we learned, in the past month, is that while the campaign was on, the president’s fiercest foes, in the Tea Party, were being thwarted, diverted and stopped. Technological savvy plus IRS corruption. The president’s victory now looks colder, more sordid, than it did.

Thinking about it, as Noonan suggests I do, I just cannot find a there there. The Tea Party seems to have contributed to a higher vote for the GOP — measured by the popular vote for the House, which is Veuger’s baseline — in 2012 than in 2008, and much a larger total than 2010. Meanwhile, the Tea Party was not being “thwarted, diverted, and stopped.” The IRS was examining the applications of Tea Party-affiliated non-profits, none of which should have had anything to do with the campaign anyway.

There was a good reason they were being examined. Although we would like to think these citizens groups are as pure as newly fallen snow, the fact issome Tea Party non-profits were clearly breaking the law.

Not for the first time in the last few years, Peggy Noonan needs to take a deep breath. And AEI might want to caution Stan Veuger about using his colleagues’ straightforward scholarly work to extrapolate a case that is not there.

Wick Allison is president of the American Ideas Institute.

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