Poll: Tea party platform fares best among GOP conservatives

By Amy Gardner and Jon Cohen
Wednesday, May 5, 2010; 12:01 AM

The conservative "tea party" movement appeals almost exclusively to supporters of the Republican Party, bolstering the view that the tea party divides the GOP even as it has energized its base.

That conclusion, backed by numbers from a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, also suggests that the tea party may have little room for growth. Most Americans -- including large majorities of those who don't already count themselves as supporters -- say they're not interested in learning more about the movement. A sizable share of those not already sympathetic to the tea party also say that the more they hear, the less they like the movement.

Overall, the tea party remains divisive, with 27 percent of those polled saying they're supportive but about as many, 24 percent, opposed. Supporters overwhelmingly identify themselves as Republicans or GOP-leaning independents; opponents are even more heavily Democratic. The new movement is also relatively small, with 8 percent of supporters claiming to be "active participants" -- about 2 percent of the total population.

But from a political standpoint, the most important cleavage is within the Republican Party.

The percentage of people who say the Democratic Party represents their personal values and is in tune with the problems of people like themselves hasn't changed since November. The percentage siding with the GOP, however, has dropped by almost precisely the numbers now siding with the tea party.

Some 14 percent of Americans say the tea party is most in sync with their values, nearly matching the 15 percentage-point drop-off for the GOP over the past five months.

The data speak to the challenge facing Republicans during this year's primaries and midterm elections, as they try to harness the energy of the tea party movement and weld its activists to Republican causes and campaigns. About one in five Americans say the tea party is more in tune with the economic problems people are now facing, a figure that jumps to 31 percent among conservative Republicans.

Elizabeth Smith, 28, an educator and Republican from Columbia, Ga., said she was drawn to the tea party not because her support for Republicans has waned but because the tea party gave her an outlet to express her unhappiness with government.

"It doesn't divide the party," said Smith, who is most upset about the bailouts of the financial and auto industries. "It's the only way people can raise their opinions. As a group, Republicans aren't protesting. But the tea party is protesting."

Anti-government sentiment runs high in the poll, with about seven in 10 saying they are "dissatisfied" or "angry" with the way the federal government works, the most to say so since just after the government shutdown ended in early 1996. Nearly half of all those angry with how Washington works say they support the tea-party movement. Nevertheless, most voters say they won't be swayed by a candidate's association with the tea party, and more say that would drive them away from such a candidate than to support him or her.

But the potential impact in GOP primaries may be another matter.

More than a quarter of all Republicans and 36 percent of conservative Republicans say they're more likely to back a tea party-affiliated candidate as are 39 percent of those who consider themselves to be "very conservative."

Staff writer Krissah Thompson and polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company