The "Tea Party" is less a classic political movement than a frustrated state of mind.
A year and a half after the idea of a Tea Party burst into view, three of 10 Americans describe themselves in the USA TODAY/Gallup Poll as Tea Party supporters — equal to the number who call themselves Republicans — though many of them acknowledge they aren't exactly sure what that allegiance means.
"I don't really understand it, but I like what they stand for," says Terry Rushing, 63, of Greensburg, La., who was among those surveyed. "They just support everything I'm looking for — lower taxes, less government. ... All the good things, you know."
"What we need is to push the tea over the edge of the boat, and the Tea Party is trying to do that," says Dale Jackson, 37, a school bus driver from Jefferson City, Mo., mentioning his concerns about illegal immigration and government bailouts.
Jackson's comment and the group's name hark back to the nation's revolutionary beginnings in its tax revolt against England, and the Fourth of July holiday has become a rallying cry for supporters who plan a gathering in San Antonio, a fair in suburban Atlanta and more. To look at who the foot soldiers are in the nation's newest political army and what motivates them, USA TODAY combined results from national polls in May and June and did additional interviews.
The portrait that emerges fits a traditional conservative group. The ranks of the Tea Party include somewhat more men than women, and they are more likely to be married and a bit older than the nation as a whole. Residents of the South and West are the most likely to endorse the Tea Party, but it is unmistakably a nationwide movement: 28% in the Midwest and 27% in the East call themselves backers.
They are overwhelmingly white and Anglo, although a scattering of Hispanics, Asian Americans and African Americans combine to make up almost one-fourth of their ranks.
What unites Tea Party supporters is less their geography or demography than their policy views: a firm conviction that the federal government has gotten too big and too powerful and a fear that the nation faces great peril. Nine in 10 are unhappy with the country's direction and see the federal debt as an ominous threat to its future. Almost as many say neither President Obama nor most members of Congress deserve re-election.
They are much more downbeat than those who are not Tea Party supporters, who by 21 percentage points are more satisfied with the country's direction and by a yawning 49 points are more likely to say Obama deserves re-election.
The Tea Party supporters who were interviewed bristle at the suggestion that the group is extremist, and some distance themselves from rhetoric that seems to advocate violent revolution. "As with anything, there are some factions that wig out," says Bonnie Jones, 60, of Independence, Ky.
They deny that bigotry or rejections of Obama because of his race are part of the movement's appeal, a perception fueled by YouTube videos showing racist signs at some Tea Party rallies. Even so, they do have a distinctive perspective on race.