What shutdown? New poll shows tea party support remains steady

A new Washington Post/ABC News poll shows that despite the many, many eulogies that have been delivered for the tea party over the past four years -- obituaries that reached a fever pitch following the government shutdown -- GOP support for the movement has remained mostly unchanged since early 2013. Among Democrats and independents, support for the tea party is on the upswing.

The latest poll, conducted from Jan. 20-23 among a random national sample of 1,003 adults, has tea party support among Republicans at 63 percent -- only one percentage point away from Post-ABC polls conducted immediately after the government shutdown and five points below a Post-ABC poll in May 2013. Democratic support for the tea party has rebounded slightly since the shutdown -- about one in five Democrats support the movement -- although there is no danger of the party catching conservative fever; 69 percent of Democrats oppose the tea party, down from a high of 79 percent in October. Forty-four percent of independents support the tea party, a seven-point rebound from after the shutdown.

Although they're the numbers that remain the least changed in the latest poll, the Republican approval numbers are the important ones to watch for the upcoming 2014 midterms, especially when you narrow down the polling to the gung-ho party members most likely to vote during primary season: conservative Republicans. Among the most loyal Republicans, support for the tea party is at 74 percent, hardly changed from a post-shutdown high of 77 percent and about where support was in mid-2013 (73 percent). Tea party Republicans also report being more active in party primary contests than others. A Pew Research poll from July 2013 found that while only 37 percent of Republicans and Republican leaning independents agree with the tea party, 49 percent of those who always vote in primaries do. For a political group with one foot in the grave, they seem to have as much of a chance of besting moderate Republicans in primary season as they did in 2010 and 2014.

Theda Skocpol, Victor S. Thomas professor of government and sociology at Harvard, has studied the tea party closely since its inception. She wrote a piece in Democracy Journal arguing against those pundits and politicians who saw the government shutdown as the sign that the movement's nadir was near. "The Tea Party was supposed to be dead and the GOP on the way to moderate repositioning after Obama’s victory and Democratic congressional gains in November 2012," she wrote. "Yet less than a year after post-election GOP soul searching supposedly occurred, radical forces pulled almost all GOP House and Senate members into at least going along with more than two weeks of extortion tactics to try to force President Obama and Senate Democrats to gut the Affordable Care Act and grant a long laundry list of other GOP priorities suspiciously similar to the platform on which the party had run and lost in 2012. The Tea Party’s hold on the GOP persists beyond each burial ceremony."


Tea party activists gather on Capitol Hill in April 2011. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Add her analysis to the unwavering opinions expressed in this poll, and it's clear that the tea party has just as much of an opportunity to be competitive in the 2014 and 2016 races as it did in the previous two election cycles. The question is whether its adherents have learned anything from their failures in the past few years -- mainly an inability to match all this goodwill from their base to electable candidates. Take Richard Mourdock, for example. Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar -- who had held his seat since 1977 -- lost to state treasurer Mourdock in 2012's Republican senate primary. He outspent the tea party challenger by more than $4 million and lost by about 20 percentage points.  When the general election came around,  Joe Donnelly became the first Democratic candidate to win statewide office in Indiana in over a decade. Tea party darling Christine O'Donnell easily won a 2010 Republican primary for Joe Biden's old Senate seat in Delaware. Her IRS problems and ill- used campaign funds made her general election chances close to nil. Todd Akin won the Republican primary to face off against Claire McCaskill, a weak prospect at that point, in Missouri. Then, he doomed his electoral chances by uttering the phrase "legitimate rape."

A cursory glance at the current roster of tea party challengers primed for 2014 seems to suggest the movement hasn't learned much. Additionally, Republican donors seem prepared to spend much more money to keep tea party challengers benched than they had in previous election cycles (although the challengers are also raising lots of cash from those previously mentioned super-active Republican voters). It's also important to remember that things change quickly in election years and grand theories issued on the basis of a poll or two can often miss the big picture.

"It is a mistake to overreact to shifts in one poll at one time," Skocpol wrote in an e-mail to The Fix. "Things may change a lot after the GOP primary season ends and general elections get under way months from now. By then, a lot that seems certain now will have changed."

Scott Clement contributed to this post.

Jaime Fuller reports on national politics for "The Fix" and Post Politics. She worked previously as an associate editor at the American Prospect, a political magazine based in Washington, D.C.
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Jaime Fuller · January 28