Tea Party’s heyday could be nearing end, say political experts

The reign of the Tea Party may be coming to an end in Washington, according to academic political experts who say polls show a backlash against the conservative movement.

Two national polls released this month by CNN and The New York Times in conjunction with CBS News showed the Tea Party’s unfavorable rating at an all-time high.

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Political scientists say the data shows a backlash of independent voters against conservative lawmakers who have taken a hard line against bipartisan compromise in Washington.

These experts say independent voters who make up the swing bloc of the electorate typically pay less attention to politics than staunch Republican and Democratic voters.

The contentious debate in Congress over the debt limit gave the Tea Party new prominence to many of these casual observers of Washington.


And many independents were not happy with what they saw over the last several weeks: a contentious debate in which conservatives threatened to force a national default; the failure of President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to reach a grand bargain to reduce the deficit; a sharp rebuke of the political system by Standard & Poor’s causing havoc on Wall Street.

They note Obama’s public approval also dipped but observe public opinion of the Tea Party has fallen faster.

The CNN poll showed the Tea Party’s favorable/unfavorable rating grew from 37 percent in October 2010 to 51 percent in August 2011.


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The Times poll, conducted Aug. 2 to 4, showed the movement’s popularity at 20 percent and unpopularity at 40 percent. The unpopularity rating was 14 points higher than in October of 2010.

“If you were paying attention to the coverage, the characterization of people resistant to raising the debt ceiling was they were Tea Party supporters or members of the Tea Party caucus,” said Charles Franklin, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin and a polling specialist. “That characterization is an element in the current apparent decline in Tea party popularity."

Franklin said surveys show most independent voters want political leaders of different parties to bridge their differences to solve the nation’s problems. They did not see that happen during the debt-limit debate, when leaders hashed out an unpopular last-minute compromise to avoid a national default.

“What we saw in all the polling, and it’s very consistent, is people favored some sort of compromise and did not know why the deadlock was there,” said Franklin. “The Tea Party, in some eyes, was blamed for the deadlock.”

Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College, said independent voters, who make up a fast-growing portion of the electorate, want more compromise.

He said independent voters generally agree with the Tea Party that federal deficits need to shrink and government should be more accountable. But these voters are turned off by brinksmanship.

“They want a government that works together, a government that gets along,” he said. “What they’re upset about is intransigence toward compromise. What came through to voters is they saw the Tea Party as a hindrance to compromise.”

A Senate Republican political strategist agreed with that assessment.

The strategist, who declined to speak on the record because he didn’t want his comments to reflect on his clients, said Tea Party lawmakers have taken a principled stand against what they view as mushy compromises but come across to independent voters as merely obstructionist.

Independent voters tended to focus on the partisan conflict and the lack of progress as the deadline to avert a national default approached. They did not appreciate the nuanced arguments of principle made by Tea Party lawmakers, specifically the only way to prevent future Congresses from running up massive deficits is to pass a balanced-budget amendment.

“The whole notion that Congress had weeks and months and nothing got done until the last minute is very infuriating. Then independents look at why that’s happening and see it’s the guys in the Tea Party,” said the GOP strategist.

Independent voters, who tend not to pay attention to politics until shortly before Election Day, followed the debt-limit standoff in Washington because it threatened to cause what senior Obama administration officials described as an economic catastrophe.

Bruce Cain, a professor of political science at the University of California and director of UC’s Washington Center, said the debt-limit debate hurt the Tea Party among independent voters.

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He said the debt-limit debate “was so dramatic it had a wide audience.”

“It definitely made the Tea Party a more visible figure,” he said. “The people who pay attention the least are the independent swing voters. This is the first time they got an idea of what the Tea Party is trying to do.”

A second GOP strategist said he thought the Tea Party has appeared “strident” and uncompromising to independent voters.

He endorsed the analyses by Franklin, Madonna and Cain.

“There’s truth to that,” he said.

“The Tea Party looks at this and fully believes Washington is a waste of money and unaccountable money. Then there’s talk of a compromise and they say ‘Why do I want to run up all these debts? I want Washington to stop spending. I don’t want to raise the debt limit,’” said the strategist. “That can look strident to people whether independents or others.”

Many Tea Party voters did not see a national default as worse than continuing the present rate of deficit spending, said the strategist.

“Then there was a validation of the fact that compromise wasn’t very effective,” said the strategist, noting the debt-limit deal, which many Tea-Party lawmakers opposed, did not avert a credit downgrade.

Democratic lawmakers repeatedly made the argument that they had gone more than halfway to meet Republicans demands.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) offered a deficit-reduction plan that cut more than $2 trillion and did not raise any taxes, but Republicans argued it included a $1 trillion budget gimmick.

White House officials leaked stories to the press that Obama was willing to cut entitlement programs as part of a broader deal.

“At several points during the debt-ceiling negotiations, we purposely made a point of bending over backward to show we were willing to meet Republicans more than half way,” said a senior Democratic aide.

Early polling shows the message appears to have resonated, say academic political experts.

The notion that Republicans are not willing to compromise with Democrats on taxes was underscored Thursday during the GOP presidential debate in Iowa. Every candidate on stage said he or she would not accept a deficit-reduction deal with a 10-to-1 ratio of spending cuts to tax increases.

Dick Armey, the chairman of FreedomWorks, a group that works closely with the Tea Party, argues that Tea Party lawmakers and activists have been unfairly blamed.

He said in a recent CNN interview that Standard & Poor’s validated their concerns over the national debt when it downgraded the nation’s credit rating.  He said Tea Party activists and voters simply want Congress to move aggressively to avert the economic fallout that will come if the current rate of federal spending continues.

Fairly or not, the emerging consensus is that the Tea Party has taken a hit from the debt-limit debate and its public image was further damaged by S&P’s action. Democrats have made a concerted effort to present it as a “Tea Party downgrade.”

Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, acknowledged that Obama’s efforts to blame the Tea Party for the fractious negotiations has hurt the movement’s popularity but he argued the effect would be temporary.

“What I think has happened is the Obama administration has used the bully pulpit to demonize them and divert attention from his own irresponsible spending,” said Ayres.

“They would rather blame the Tea Party than explain why the U.S. government debt is out of control and spending is out of control. This is classic defensive politics,” he added.

Ayres said Obama will not get the same bounce from the debt-limit standoff that former President Bill Clinton got from the government shutdown of the mid-90s.

“It bears no resemblance. We didn’t shut down the government,’ he said. “Republican leaders were consistent in saying the country will not default. The country will pay its bills.”

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