Mark Mellman: Digging into the Tea Party

Mark Mellman: Digging into the Tea Party
© Greg Nash

Last week, I surveyed the damage done to the Republican brand by the recent shutdown. Some faulted “the Tea Party” for the wreckage, though, as I noted earlier, not one Republican of any stripe was willing to put his or her name on the line to end it.

So, in truth, the GOP as a whole owns it.


Nonetheless, it’s worth exploring Tea Party voters in a bit more detail. Just who are they? How many of them are there? Are they a new and different kind of Republican?

“Who is a Tea Partyer?” is a question with no settled answer. As a result, they are hard to count.

Pew tracks Tea Party affiliation by asking respondents whether they “agree or disagree” with the Tea Party movement. By this reckoning, more than nine in 10 Tea Partyers are Republicans, but more importantly, Tea Partyers constitute a hefty 41 percent of Republican identifiers.

Democracy Corps’s research classifies respondents as Tea Partyers if they both have a strongly favorable attitude toward the Tea Party and also identify strongly with it. This more restrictive definition classifies 22 percent of Republicans as Tea Partyers.

Democracy Corps’s own data, however, reveals that more than 53 percent of Republicans identify themselves as “supporters” of the Tea Party. Quinnipiac finds 26 percent of Republicans claiming membership in the Tea Party, while Gallup recently found 38 percent of Republicans calling themselves Tea Party supporters (down from 65 percent in November 2010).

So, depending on your definition, somewhere between a quarter and just more than half of Republicans are Tea Partyers. And when a constituency that size is organized and active, it can exert substantial influence within a political party.

According to Pew, 68 percent of Republican Tea Partyers claim they always vote in primary elections, compared to 54 percent of non-Tea Party Republicans, giving the Tea Party outsized influence on the nomination process.

But how distinct are these Tea Partyers from the rest of the GOP?

Pew suggests they are quite different. Sixty-nine percent of Tea Party Republicans say it is not essential to raise the debt limit, a position held by just 44 percent of non-Tea Party Republicans. Three-quarters of Tea Party Republicans want to expand traditional energy sources, compared to 38 percent of their non-Tea Party comrades. Sixty-nine percent of Tea Partyers oppose same-sex marriage, a position held by 54 percent of non-Tea Party Republicans. And nearly three-quarters of the former say it’s more important to reduce the debt than to maintain Social Security benefits, as compared to 44 percent of non-Tea Party Republicans.

Political lore suggests the Tea Party emerged from an ideologically diverse constituency — conservative, libertarian, populist — brought into political activism by deficits, debt and taxes.

However, the data suggest they look rather like traditional conservative Republicans (at least the traditional conservative Republicans of the last 20 years). Tea Partyers are much more likely to be anti-choice, anti-gay marriage and pro-gun than non-Tea Party Republicans. They were Republicans and social conservatives before there was a Tea Party.

A recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, using a more restrictive definition of Tea Partyers, found more than half identifying with the Christian right. Indeed, according to Pew, 83 percent of Tea Party Republicans call themselves conservative, compared to 51 percent of non-Tea Party GOPers. Far from being something new, Tea Party voters are not much more than part of the Republican right, traveling under a different name. The real question, then, is not what happens to the Tea Party, but rather what becomes of non-Tea Party Republicans, the shrinking segment of centrist GOPers. Do they continue simply shaking their heads and biting their nails — or do they act, either by trying to retake control of their party or by leaving it? 


Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the Majority Leader of the Senate and the Democratic Whip in the House.