Tea Party Republicans: What the Polls Say

By Neal Caren

In order to understand the potential influence of the Tea Party Movement on the Republican Party, it is useful to locate its supporters within the Republican Party and the overall spectrum of American politics. One useful and underutilized tool for doing this is the data from a weekly poll conducted by Public Policy Polling for DailyKos/SEIU. They have been collecting data since the beginning of 2011, and place the raw data on the web when they report their results, which is usually every Wednesday. In addition to the normal questions found on campaign polls, the survey has asked whether the respondent was a member of the Tea Party (from January to October) or whether the respondent was a supporter of the Tea Party (from October to the present). From this polling data, we can make a couple of inferences on the type of impact that the Tea Party is likely to have on the Republican primaries this year.

The Tea Party Movement has the support of a majority of Republicans. About 30% of Americans support the Tea Party movement. Among Republicans, support is 55%, and among conservative Republicans support reaches 65%. Fewer consider themselves members of the Tea Party movement, however, with only 30% of Republicans adopting this identity. Even among conservative Republicans, only 35% considered themselves Tea Party members.

Support for the Tea Party is slightly higher among those Republicans likely to vote in the upcoming election–those who indicated that they were excited about voting. Here, Tea Party members constitute 39% of likely voters, while all Tea Party supporters total 68% of likely voters. So while the Republican primary electorate is not synonymous with the Tea Party, there is not much room to run to the left of the movement within the Republican Party, as Mitt Romney and his advisers are well aware.

Republican Tea Party members are everywhere conservatives are. In models predicting support or membership in the Tea Party among Republicans, which control just for basic demographics and conservative self identification, adding 50 state dummy variables only increases the model fit trivially, just a one percentage point increase in the r2. So, while there may be some geographic concentration of membership or organizations, Tea Party support and identification are primarily national phenomena. On the one hand, this may be good for the movement because it means a national candidate like Mitt Romney can not write off the Tea Party faction the way they could if the movement was concentrated in a state with a late Presidential primary. On the other hand, being diffuse among conservative voters may limit the movement’s impact in local and Congressional elections. By diluting their strength across the country, the movement is less able to influence local primaries than they would if they had the same number of supporters, but concentrated more in the South or West. This nationalization may also explain why being associated with the Tea Party had little substantive impact on the vote share of 2010 Republican candidates[i] (Karpowitz et al. 2011). Since the Tea Party is a national brand associated with the conservative wing of the Republican Party, there may not have been much local variation in how candidates were perceived with respect to the Tea Party in 2010, and there is no reason to believe the upcoming election will be different.

The majority of Republicans call themselves conservative; the majority of Democrats do not call themselves liberal. In 2011, 38% of American adults considered themselves conservative, compared to just 14% who considered themselves liberals. Among self-identified Democrats, the liberal percentage only increases to 31%. The majority of Democrats consider themselves moderate (55%) or conservative (14%). In contrast, 71% of Republicans consider themselves conservative, with only 28% identifying as moderates and a lonely 2% as liberal. While conservatives are more than two-thirds of the Republican Party, liberals are less than one third of the Democratic party.

This means that a conservative movement is likely to be more influential among Republicans than a liberal movement among Democrats. Tea Party issues, such as calls for lower taxes and for a more limited government, have been mainstays of the conservative movement for decades, and many Republican elites can adopt these issues without alienating a substantial fraction of their party. There is some evidence that being associated with the Tea Party and other conservative signaling devices, such as signing the “Contract from America”, helped candidates in the 2010 Republican Congressional primaries (Karpowitz et al. 2011). In contrast, a self-identified liberal candidate will already have distanced him or herself from two thirds of the party. The Democrats are a party of moderates; the Republicans are a party of conservatives. This is not to say that liberal issues with relative broad appeal, such as concerns about wealth inequality raised by the Occupy movement, are dead ends. Rather, issues and movements that only liberals care about are unlikely to have the level of influence in the Democratic party that issues that only conservatives care about will have in the Republican party.

Republican Tea Party supporters love their party. Among all registered voters, 73% of Tea Party members have a favorable opinion of the Republican Party, compared to just 14% of non-Tea Party members who support the party. Among those who identify as Republicans, 84% of Tea Party members have a favorable view of their party, compared to 77% of Republicans who aren’t Tea Party members. The gap is even bigger when Republicans evaluate how their party is doing in Congress. 77% of Tea Party supporters approve of how their party is doing in congress, compared to just 45% of non-Tea Party supporters. This split likely reflects that rightward turn that Congressional Republicans took after the 2010 elections.

Tea Party members aren’t just opposing Mitt Romney on ideological grounds; they also don’t think his nomination is the best route to beating Obama.  Tea Party supporters differ from other Republicans both in the extent to which they view a Republican victory as likely, and about which candidate is likely to make that happen. During Newt Gingrich’s first presidential boomlet in December, PPP asked respondents about what they thought would happen in a race between Gingrich and President Obama and Romney and Obama. Among Republican Tea Party supporters, 47% thought that either candidate could defeat Obama, 21% thought neither could, 7% thought only Romney could, and 25% thought only Gingrich could. Combined, this means that 72% of Tea Party supporters thought Gingrich could beat Obama, compared to just 54% for Romney. Among other Republicans 40% thought Romney can win, and only 35% thought Gingrich can win. Notably, on the Democratic side, there is a much greater consensus on President Obama’s electoral chances, with 84% of liberal Democrats thinking he is likely to win, compared to 81% of other Democrats.

Conventional wisdom would have us believe that ideologically committed voters downplay electability in favor of principle when selecting candidates–how else could Republicans have nominated Christine O’Donnell in Delaware or Sharron Angle in Nevada for the Senate in 2010? However, this doesn’t appear to be the case, as Tea Party supporters perhaps think that a more ideologically pure candidate provides a better contrast with President Obama or that a silent majority supports their position. Either way, we shouldn’t expect Tea Party supporters to abandon a Republican candidate because people outside the movement don’t think that he is electable. They’ll keep supporting anyone but Romney as their best chance to defeat Obama.


[i] Karpowitz, Christopher, J. Quin Monson, Kelly D. Patterson and Jeremy C. Pope. “Tea Time in America? The Impact of the Tea Party Movement on the 2010 Midterm Elections” PS: Political Science & Politics (2011), 44 : pp 303-309.


Filed under Essay Dialogues, Tea Party and the Primaries

2 responses to “Tea Party Republicans: What the Polls Say

  1. Pingback: Guest Post: "Observations on the Tea Party" by Keith Seegmiller | Publius Online

  2. Pingback: tea party forum at mobilizing ideas « orgtheory.net

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s