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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Tea Party: Still the Republican Right

Back on February 12, a CNN/New York Times poll gave us our first good look at the Tea Party Movement, and it didn’t confirm the media stereotype of angry average citizens who were somewhere in the “middle” on issues and equally disdained the two parties. Instead it showed the Tea Party folk to be, basically, very conservative Republicans determined to pressure the GOP to move to the right or suffer the consequences–in other words, a radicalized GOP base.
A new poll from Quinnipiac confirms that impression, and it’s really getting to the point where any other intepretation of the Tea Party Movement is probably spin (e.g., among Tea Party leaders who want to maintain their leverage over Republicans by pretending to be more independent than they actually are).
The alternative explanation has been that the Tea Partiers represent independent voters who are fed up with government and will join with Republicans to create a stable majority in this “center-right nation” if and only if Republicans stop talking about cultural issues and focus on lower taxes, smaller government and the economy. Nothing in the Quinnipiac poll supports that proposition. On question after question, self-identified Tea Partiers (13% of the total sample) are much closer in their views to self-identified Republicans than to self-identified independents. Most notably, the approval/disapproval rating for the Republican Party is 60/20 among Tea Partiers and 28/42 among indies. Among those voting in 2008, Tea Partiers went for McCain by a margin of 77/15; indies split down the middle (going for McCain 46/42). Tea Partiers have a favorable view of Sarah Palin by a 72/14 margin (significantly higher than among Republicans), while indies have an unfavorable view of her by a 49/34 margin. Tea Partiers self-identify as Republicans or Republican-leaners by a 74/16 margin. These are not the same people by any stretch of the imagination.
The poll doesn’t ask enough questions to get at the details of Tea Party ideology, but it also doesn’t supply any ammunition to the common perception that Tea Partiers are libertarians at heart, and/or that they are displacing the Christian Right within the conservative coalition. Actually, 21% of self-identified white “born-again” evangelicals consider themselves part of the Tea Party movement, well above the 13% figure for all voters. And the the two categories of voters share a rare positive attachment to Sarah Palin (white “born-agains” approve of her by a 55/29 margin, Tea Partiers by a 72/14 margin).
At some point, the more questionable assumptions that pundits are making about the Tea Folk–they are right-trending independents, they are hostile to the Christian Right–need to yield to empirical evidence. Now would be a good time to start.
UPDATE: I should have probably mentioned that Quinnipiac has undermined the findings of its own poll by releasing it with this title: “Tea Party Could Hurt GOP In Congressional Races, Quinnipiac University National Poll Finds; Dems Trail 2-Way Races, But Win If Tea Party Runs.” That’s based on a few questions offering three-way trial heats of unidentified Democrats, Republicans and Tea Partiers. Since there will not actually be such contests in November beyond a few scattered races with virtually unknown independent candidates claiming kinship with the Tea Parties, the whole line of reasoning is specious.

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