As the tea party turns five, it looks a lot like the conservative base

Rena Schild /

Tea Party protesters rally against government tax and spending policies at the US Capitol on September 12, 2009 in Washington.

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  • Is the public in tune with the Tea Party? How are they faring in terms of national popularity?

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  • But as more Americans have come to know the Tea Party movement, unfavorable views have risen sharply.

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  • 69 percent of Democrats had an unfavorable view of the Tea Party as did 49 percent of independents.

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Tea Party supporters plan to rally at the Capitol on February 27 to celebrate the fifth anniversary of their movement. How are they faring in terms of national popularity? Is the public in tune with the Tea Party?

It is hardly surprising that pollsters have tracked the Tea Party closely. Not only did the movement emerge spontaneously in 2009 with new affiliates springing up around the country almost overnight, but its organizational structure was also something entirely new in American politics.  Radically decentralized, with no lead organization early on, the Tea Party was rewriting the rules of political organization. The Tea Party’s activity in many 2010 election contests only increased interest. But since that time, many have argued that the Tea party has lost significant ground. The highly regarded Pew Research Center released an October 2013 poll report just after the government shutdown, entitled “Tea Party’s Image Turns More Negative.”  What’s the story? Just how strong is the movement?

Polls are especially useful for gauging Tea Party support because there is no official measure of membership in the movement.  The polls give us three different tests of Tea Party strength. The first comes from the most straightforward question the pollsters ask. “Do you consider yourself a part of the Tea Party movement?” Several pollsters ask this question, and in each poll, there has been little change in responses since the pollsters first asked the question.  When Quinnipiac pollsters asked registered voters whether they were a part of the movement for the first time in March 2010, 13 percent said they were. In September 2013, 12 percent gave that response. These self-proclaimed members of the Tea Party movement constitute a small but significant voting bloc. Although the comparisons are tricky, other issues such as the environment and abortion attract smaller numbers of fervent, committed activists.

A second picture emerges from a broader question several pollsters ask. NBC News/Wall Street Journal and AP/GfK pollsters ask people whether they are supporters of the Tea Party movement or not, and their results are remarkably similar. In the AP/GfK January 2014 poll, 27 percent said they considered themselves a supporter, while 67 percent said they were not.  In the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll from January, those responses were 24 and 65 percent, respectively.  These responses have also been remarkably steady for several years.

A third picture comes from another kind of question the pollsters ask, and here we see dramatic changes since the movement’s birth. At least six pollsters ask people whether they have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of the Tea Party. Not surprisingly, when these questions were first asked about the Tea Party in 2010, most people didn’t have an opinion about it. Around a third of those surveyed had favorable views.  Those responses haven’t changed.  But as more Americans have come to know the Tea Party movement, unfavorable views have risen sharply.  In Pew’s poll, 24 percent had an unfavorable opinion in February 2010; in October 2013,  more than double that number, 49 percent, gave that response  We would expect Democrats to have unfavorable views of the right-leaning Tea Party, but in several polls, many Republicans, especially those who call themselves moderate to liberal Republicans, now voice unfavorable opinions. These negative feelings were exacerbated during the government shutdown. In Pew’s October 2013 poll, 69 percent of Democrats had an unfavorable view as did 49 percent of independents. Slightly more than a quarter of Republicans, 27 percent, had negative views.  Forty-two percent of moderate-to-liberal Republicans did, up from 35 percent the previous June.

In Pew’s October poll, only conservative Republicans had a strongly favorable view of the movement.  Sixty-five percent of them viewed the party favorably (21 percent, unfavorably). This raises a key question.  Are the Tea Partiers really something new or are they simply a rebranded version of conservative Republicans? Pollsters who have profiled Tea Party supporters suggest they look a lot like the people who supported Ross Perot’s presidential campaigns.  They are older, white, male, with higher levels of formal education.  They look a lot like the conservative GOP base.

Nationally, there is no question that negative views of the Tea Party have risen. But core support seems to be holding steady.  Whether these Tea Party backers are traditional conservatives or something new, they are – at roughly 10 percent of the population —  a significant bloc that can still have a big impact on elections.

Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow and Jennifer Marsico is a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute, where they study public opinion.

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