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Do Protests Matter? What the Tea Party Can Teach the Trump Resistance?

This is how rallies grow into movements and create social change.

Since Trump was elected there has been a protest every single day, somewhere in the country. So some of those millions of people may be asking themselves, do protests matter? The political impact is notoriously understudied because they are difficult to isolate from other closely related political forces. But in 2012 Harvard researchers found a way to do it using rainfall to randomize event size. Their research showed the incredible impact of tea party protests on political outcomes. They found that in places where there was no rain on Tax Day leading to a larger and more robust rally, there was an increase in voter turnout in subsequent elections that favored Congressional Republican candidates. There was also a notable right-wing shift in the voting record of incumbents in those districts.

Perhaps the most significant of their findings was the rallies’ impact on voter turnout during the 2010 mid-term elections. For every additional protestor who showed up to a Tea Party rally, there was an expected increase of 12 additional votes for conservative candidates. It is estimated that tax day rallies nationwide lead to between 2.7 and 5.5 million votes for the Republican Party in the 2010 House elections. Republicans in 2010 took control of the U.S. House, expanded their minority in the U.S. Senate and gained nearly 700 seats in state legislatures.

Think about that: one more person showing up at a rally meant 12 more votes for Republicans. Now extrapolate that figure across the massive protests that we’ve seen since Trump took office. The 2017 women’s marches drew between 3 million and 5 million people in more than 650 towns and cities. That’s about six times the number of protesters as the tea party rallies in 2009. And marches this year saw estimates of between1.6 million and 2.5 million people. Adding up to between 5 million and 8 million people actively denouncing Trump’s policies in total.

So, is protesting effective? You bet. Already, we see that the resistance may be yielding results. Last November, Democrats made significant legislative gains across the country and swept key seats in Virginia and New Jersey. Moreover, it was people of color, women and LGBTQ candidates – the very groups derided and targeted by Trump—who made the real headlines in November, breaking barriers and revealing a new and perhaps more energized electorate than we’ve seen in recent years. The election of Doug Jones to the U.S. Senate from Alabama over Trump-supported candidate Roy Moore—underscores that point.

The researchers of the Tea Party study believe that one of the main reasons the tea party rallies were so successful was the social networks they created, which built on the movement’s strength. It wasn’t necessarily just sign-waving or demonstrating itself that shifted political decisions, but the fact that people met one another, bolstered each other’s opinions, and made ongoing plans to work together to unseat their representatives.

Staying connected after the protests and turning our energy into active participation and votes is imperative. Our sheer numbers and a bit of recent history suggest there’s lots to work with and a lot to look forward to with regards to the upcoming midterm elections.

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