Poll: In the Tea Party Movement, Possibilities - and Challenges

Twenty-seven percent of Americans support the Tea Party.

May 4, 2010, 10:43 AM

May 5, 2010 -- Conservative Republicans dominate the Tea Party movement, marking both its strengths in establishing a unified political message – and its challenges in attracting broader support.

Twenty-seven percent of Americans support the Tea Party, this ABC News/Washington Post poll finds, including 17 percent who back it "strongly" and just 2 percent who say they're active participants. Its backers overwhelmingly reject the Obama administration, and many voice dissatisfaction with Washington, favor smaller government and express economic anxiety.

Click here for a PDF with charts and questionnaire.

While that reflects a motivated political base, the movement's broader appeal is in question. Nearly as many Americans oppose the Tea Party as support it. More say they like it less, rather than more, as they hear more about it. Far more are tuning it out than are highly interested. And association with the Tea Party may cost congressional candidates more votes than it attracts, particularly among better-educated Americans, whose election turnout tends to be high.

Among registered voters, 15 percent say they'd be more likely to support a candidate for Congress who's associated with the Tea Party movement – but 24 percent say they'd be more apt to oppose such a candidate. Focusing on strong sentiment produces a similar result: Just 9 percent are "much" more likely to support a Tea Party candidate, vs. 17 percent much more likely to oppose one.

The impact of a candidate's association with the Tea Party is more negative among Democrats than it is positive among Republicans, and nearly a wash among independents. It's much more of a negative for political moderates and especially among college-educated voters, among whom 36 percent are more likely to oppose a Tea Party candidate while just 14 percent are more likely to support one. (Among people with postgraduate degrees even more, 48 percent, are more apt to oppose a Tea Party-affiliated candidate.)

HEAR/LEARN – Among all Americans, 34 percent say the more they hear about the Tea Party the more they like it, but 43 percent instead say the more they hear the less they like it.

Its own supporters overwhelmingly like it more, opponents less – but another challenge to the party is the large group in the middle, 44 percent of Americans, who are neutral toward the movement. Among people in this group 45 percent say the more they hear about the Tea Party the less they like it, vs. 22 percent who like it more.

Overall, 46 percent of all Americans are interested in learning more about the movement, while 54 percent are not. Again though there are differences under the surface: While eight in 10 Tea Party supporters are interested in learning more about it, this falls very sharply to 36 percent of those who are neutral toward it, as well as to 23 percent of its opponents. And, on an intensity scale, while 13 percent of Americans are "very" interested in learning more about the movement, nearly three times as many are not at all interested, 35 percent.

FROM THE GOP – The Democratic Party substantially leads both the Republican Party and the Tea Party movement in the sense among Americans that it best represents their values, is most concerned with their problems and best understands the economic difficulties people are experiencing. In each of these, the Tea Party encroaches far more on the Republicans than on the Democrats, underscoring its GOP base – and the potential risk to Republican candidates who fall out of Tea Party favor.

For example, 86 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents say the Democratic Party best represents their values. Among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, though, just 56 percent say the Republican Party best represents their values – 29 percent instead pick the Tea Party. And fewer than half of leaned Republicans, 48 percent, say the GOP best understands their economic problems.

The breakdown by ideology also is telling. Nearly as many conservatives pick the Tea Party as the Republican Party as being most concerned with their needs, 31 percent vs. 37 percent, and as understanding the country's economic problems, 30 percent vs. 33 percent.

Another result also demonstrates how the Tea Party draws from Republican ranks. An ABC/Post poll in November 2009 tested the Democratic Party vs. the Republican Party on values and empathy. The Democratic Party's scores are almost exactly the same now as then; it's the GOP that's lost ground with the Tea Party added to the mix.

BASE – Underscoring the movement's political and ideological base, 68 percent of people who identify themselves as "very" conservative are Tea Party supporters, as are 67 percent of strong Republicans and 59 percent of those who strongly disapprove of Barack Obama's job performance. The movement is supported by more than half of John McCain's voters from 2008, and by about half of all Republicans, conservatives, people who are very worried about the economy and those who are angry at the way the federal government is working.

A look in profile tells the same story: Eighty-four percent of Tea Party supporters disapprove of Obama, 83 percent prefer smaller rather than larger government, 64 percent are conservatives, 56 percent are very worried about the economy and 43 percent are Republicans – each far higher than its proportion in the general population.

Other measures show little differences, with Tea Party supporters no more or less apt to be college graduates, to have incomes over $75,000 or to be either among the youngest or oldest age groups. ("Strong" supporters of the Tea Party, however, are somewhat more apt to be in upper-middle income categories, and to be age 50 or older.)

Profiles of the group, is should be noted, depend on estimates of its size, which have ranged from 18 percent to 31 percent in recent polls, depending on how support for the Tea Party is measured. Again, in this poll 27 percent of Americans express support for the movement, 17 percent strongly.

THE QUESTION OF RACE – Tea Party supporters broadly agree on motivations for backing the movement – economic concern (cited by 83 percent), distrust of government (79 percent) and opposition to President Obama and the Democrats (72 percent). Many fewer supporters, but still 39 percent, cite dissatisfaction with the Republican Party as a reason for favoring the Tea Party.

At the same time, the movement's supporters broadly reject the suggestion of racial prejudice against Obama. Eighty-seven percent of Tea Party backers say this is not a reason people support it. (One in 10 say it is). Racism, rather, is suggested by many Tea Party opponents, 57 percent of whom suspect prejudice in the movement's ranks. (Among people who are neutral toward the Tea Party, about a quarter, 24 percent, suspect prejudice is at play in its support.)

Tea Party supporters are less apt than others to see racism as a major problem in this country – a majority do so, 58 percent, compared with 75 percent of all Americans. However, this concern is about the same among Tea Party supporters as it is among all adults who define themselves as very conservative (61 percent say racism is a significant problem). And Tea Party supporters are more apt to be white – 81 percent, vs. 74 percent of all adults (and 65 percent of Tea Party opponents). Whites are less apt than nonwhites to see racism as a major problem.

Further, while 18 percent of Tea Party supporters say Obama is doing "too much" to represent the interests of African-Americans, exactly as many say he's doing too little in this regard. And those proportions are about equal among all Americans – 12 percent say Obama's doing too much for African-Americans, 13 percent too little.

Ultimately, a statistical analysis indicates that the strongest predictors of supporting the Tea Party are views of Obama, ideology, partisanship and anger at the way the government is operating. Views on the extent of racism as a problem, and views on Obama's efforts on behalf of African-Americans, are not significant predictors of support for the Tea Party movement.

METHODOLOGY – This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone April 22-25, 2010, among a random national sample of 1,001 adults, including landline and cell-phone-only respondents. Results for the full sample have a 3.5-point error margin. Click here for a detailed description of sampling error. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, PA.

ABC News polls can be found at ABCNEWS.com at http://abcnews.com/pollingunit.