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

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 18, 2010; A02

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.

Although both movements drew people from the two major parties as well as independents, the partisan makeup of the two groups differs. More than two in three Perot voters in 1992 called themselves Democrats or independents. The Post poll of strong tea party supporters found that 49 percent identified themselves as Democrats or independents.

Both movements focused on the deficit. But the DLC study of 1993 found that a majority of Perot voters "believe higher taxes are necessary to address the deficit and health care." No such attitudes prevail among the tea party followers. A "unique brand of economic conservatism" is the movement's hallmark, according to Winston.

"Tea Party members are more concerned about rates of taxation and see more negative consequences to increased taxes," he wrote.

The author of the 1993 DLC report, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, sees almost no relationship between the Perot movement and today's tea party activism. Nor does he believe there is much mystery to the true allegiance of the tea party movement. Its members are, he believes, the base of the Republican Party by another name.

Perot voters, he argued, were consciously breaking with the two parties. The tea party activists are not. "While the tea party people seem very critical of the party, they are very embracing of the party," he said. "They want to shape and define the Republican Party."

The tea party movement is a reaction against Obama and the Democrats' agenda. Sarah Palin may be trying to become the movement's most prominent voice, but the real motivating force is the president and his policies.

That's the good news for Republicans. At a time when the establishment of the party was demoralized and divided, the tea party activists rose up in opposition to the administration, energizing a conservative movement flat on its back. That energy presents a clear and present threat to the Democrats in November.

The danger is that the tea party movement, with its demands for ideological purity and the behavior of some of those on the fringes, will shrink the GOP's appeal in the long run. Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Robert F. Bennett of Utah and Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida are feeling that heat this spring in their primary campaigns. Everyone else is taking notice.

The Perot movement created a competition between the two major parties. The Democrats have no real hope of attracting tea party activists, given their ideological makeup. The question is whether the Republican Party can harness this new movement's energy without paying too high a price.

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