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Adopting Tea Party Positions Could Be Risky for GOP

02/01/2011 02:09 pm ET | Updated Jun 18, 2012

According to the Gallup Poll, 70% of Americans, including 88% of Republicans, say it is important for Republican leaders in Congress to "take the Tea Party movement's positions and objectives into account" in addressing the nation's problems.

As Margie Omero has pointed out in a recent post, asking whether the GOP should take the Tea Party's views into account sets a rather low bar for measuring support for the movement. Gallup as well as other polling organizations have found that less than a third of the public actually consider themselves supporters of the Tea Party and that as many if not more Americans hold negative views of the movement as hold positive views.

But leaving these measurement issues aside, just what would taking the views of the Tea Party movement into account involve for the Republican Party? To answer this question, we need to know what opinions supporters of the movement hold on major issues facing the country. While there has been no comprehensive study of the political attitudes of Tea Party supporters, we can get some idea of their views on current issues from a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.

The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll was conducted from January 13-17 of this year and involved interviews on landline and cellular telephones with a representative sample of 1,000 voting age Americans. Twenty-five percent of respondents described themselves as supporters of the Tea Party movement. In response to another question, 29% of respondents indicated that they had a favorable opinion of the Tea Party movement while 38% had an unfavorable opinion and 33% were neutral or undecided. I combined the responses to these two questions to identify individuals who gave consistently pro-Tea Party answers. These strong Tea Party supporters included 20% of all respondents in the poll.

Consistent with the findings of other studies of Tea Party supporters, the evidence from the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows that strong Tea Party supporters were disproportionately white (90%), male (57%), older (57% over the age of 50) and more affluent (40% had family incomes over $75,000) than other Americans. Seventy-five percent of strong Tea Party supporters compared with 32% of the overall public identified with or leaned toward the Republican Party. Almost half of all Republican identifiers and leaners were strong Tea Party supporters.

There were striking differences between the political views of strong Tea Party supporters and those of other Americans. Seventy-five percent of strong Tea Party supporters described themselves as very or somewhat conservative vs. 35% of the entire public, 80% opposed stricter gun control laws vs. 46% of the entire public, 77% favored ending "birthright citizenship" for children of immigrants vs. 47% of the entire public, and 73% felt that most government regulations to protect consumers and the environment were unnecessary vs. 32% of the entire public.

Opposition to the Obama Administration's effort to reform health care has been a major focus of the Tea Party movement so it is not surprising that there were also dramatic differences between the opinions of strong Tea Party supporters and those of the overall public on the issue health care reform. Fully 82% of strong Tea Party supporters described the health care reform law passed by the 111th Congress as a bad idea compared with only 39% of the entire public and 82% of strong Tea Party supporters favored repealing the new health care law vs. 45% of the entire public.

On every issue included in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, strong Tea Party supporters were far more conservative than the overall public. Moreover, they were remarkably consistent in their conservative views. Forty-seven percent of strong Tea Party supporters took consistently conservative positions on the issues of gun control, birthright citizenship, government regulation, and health care repeal compared with only 15% of the entire public. Seventy-five percent of strong Tea Party supporters took the conservative side on at least three of these four issues compared with only 32% of the entire public.

With strong Tea Party supporters now making up almost half of their party's electoral base, Republican leaders clearly will have to take the views of this group into account in governing. However, the evidence presented here indicates that simply adopting the Tea Party's positions could pose serious risks for the GOP because the views of this group appear to be well to the right of those of the American public on a wide range of issues.