Don't be too quick to mistake tea party for Perot movement

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 18, 2010

For those in the movement, "the deficit is a symbol of the mess in Washington." They are "deeply anti-political" and hold "deep antipathy to Congress." They are "anti-government and anti-establishment."

Sound familiar? Those words could easily be applied to the "tea party" movement that has elbowed its way to the front lines of American politics in the past year. In fact, they were written 17 years ago in a Democratic Leadership Council study of Ross Perot supporters.

The Perot movement is an obvious starting point to try to understand the tea party movement. Both movements began during times of economic distress and were built on growing distrust of, and even anger with, Washington and the federal government. Each shook up the established political order, forcing the two major parties to adapt. Many of the tea party activists are new to politics, as were many of those who supported Perot.

But although they share some attitudes and attributes, the tea partiers are not natural descendants of the followers of the quirky billionaire from Texas. The differences between those attracted by Perot and those who have rallied in reaction to President Obama are as important as the similarities in gauging the impact of the tea party movement.

The Perot voters were a disparate group, ideologically diverse, with generally secular views. The tea party movement is far more cohesive. If anything, it is simply an adjunct of the conservative wing of the Republican Party, even if many of its supporters say they hold no particular allegiance for the GOP and are critical of party leadership.

A look at exit polls from the 1992 campaign and recent polls examining the tea party movement highlights the unique natures of the two movements.

They look alike. Tea party activists, like Perot voters, are overwhelmingly white. According to a recent Washington Post poll, 87 percent of those who said they strongly support the tea party movement are white. In 1992, 94 percent of Perot voters were white.

The tea party is more male than female, just as with the Perot movement -- in contrast to the overall electorate, which is now majority female. Fifty-seven percent of tea party supporters are male, according to the Post survey, which is five points higher than Perot backers in 1992. In terms of education, the two groups are identical: one-third college graduates, two-thirds without college degrees.

But the differences are more revealing. One is age. Perot voters were significantly younger than tea party activists. Sixty-three percent of Perot voters were ages 18 to 44. In the Post survey, only 44 percent of tea party supporters were younger than 45. A CBS-New York Times survey last week found an even older skew to the movement, with 75 percent of those they identified as tea party activists 45 or older.

Tea party activists are not only wealthier than the overall population but also wealthier than Perot voters were. More than half of the tea party activists have incomes of $50,000 or more, compared with just 44 percent of the overall population. Perot voters looked almost identical to the population at large in terms of income.

The biggest and most important difference, however, is the ideological makeup of the two groups. Despite the same strong anti-government sentiment and focus on the federal budget deficit as the tea party activists of today, the Perot voters were far less conservative.

In 1992, 53 percent of those who backed Perot for president described themselves as moderate, with 27 percent calling themselves conservative and 20 percent liberal, according to the exit polls. Among tea party activists, the Post poll and the CBS-New York Times poll found that nearly three-quarters called themselves conservative. David Winston, a Republican pollster, pegged the group's makeup as 65 percent conservative, 26 percent moderate.

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