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

Rena Schild / Shutterstock.com

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

Article Highlights

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

    Tweet This

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

    Tweet This

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

    Tweet This

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.

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine
About the Author

 

Karlyn
Bowman

 

Jennifer K.
Marsico

What's new on AEI

Love people, not pleasure
image Oval Office lacks resolve on Ukraine
image Middle East Morass: A public opinion rundown of Iraq, Iran, and more
image Verizon's Inspire Her Mind ad and the facts they didn't tell you
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 21
    MON
  • 22
    TUE
  • 23
    WED
  • 24
    THU
  • 25
    FRI
Monday, July 21, 2014 | 9:15 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.
Closing the gaps in health outcomes: Alternative paths forward

Please join us for a broader exploration of targeted interventions that provide real promise for reducing health disparities, limiting or delaying the onset of chronic health conditions, and improving the performance of the US health care system.

Monday, July 21, 2014 | 4:00 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.
Comprehending comprehensive universities

Join us for a panel discussion that seeks to comprehend the comprehensives and to determine the role these schools play in the nation’s college completion agenda.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014 | 8:50 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.
Who governs the Internet? A conversation on securing the multistakeholder process

Please join AEI’s Center for Internet, Communications, and Technology Policy for a conference to address key steps we can take, as members of the global community, to maintain a free Internet.

Event Registration is Closed
Thursday, July 24, 2014 | 9:00 a.m. – 10:00 a.m.
Expanding opportunity in America: A conversation with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan

Please join us as House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) unveils a new set of policy reforms aimed at reducing poverty and increasing upward mobility throughout America.

Thursday, July 24, 2014 | 6:00 p.m. – 7:15 p.m.
Is it time to end the Export-Import Bank?

We welcome you to join us at AEI as POLITICO’s Ben White moderates a lively debate between Tim Carney, one of the bank’s fiercest critics, and Tony Fratto, one of the agency’s staunchest defenders.

No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.