Tea party fuels GOP midterm enthusiasm, action

If you missed any of this year's primaries -- or just forgot -- here are the names and faces you need to know in November.
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 9, 2010; 9:06 PM

President Obama and Vice President Biden will travel to Philadelphia on Sunday for another rally designed to energize Democratic voters. The crowd at their Madison, Wis., rally last month was impressive, and this one may be, too. But any way you cut it, the Republicans still have the advantage in enthusiasm this fall, thanks in large measure to the tea party movement.

The latest evidence comes in another of a long series of surveys conducted by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University. What it shows is that tea party supporters and other conservatives are the most energized and are prepared to work the hardest to persuade friends and neighbors to vote Nov. 2.

The survey measured attitudes about the upcoming vote, including questions on interest in the elections, how these elections compare in importance with those in 2008, and the activities people are likely to participate in between now and Election Day. On every measure, strong supporters of the tea party movement stand above the rest of the field.

For starters, take the question of whether people are very interested in these elections. Forty-three percent of Democrats said they are. Among Republicans, 57 percent said they're very interested. Among tea party supporters the figure was 74 percent, and among the strongest tea party supporters it was 83 percent.

More telling is the measurement of who is more interested in this election than in the election of 2008. Just 22 percent of Democrats and only 17 percent of liberal Democrats say they are. These were many of the same people who two years ago were turning out in enormous numbers to see Obama in the final weeks of the campaign, crowds of 75,000 or 100,000 in places like St. Louis and Denver. Obama, Biden and Democratic candidates will be trying to reignite that interest over the next three weeks.

Republican candidates face no such challenges in whipping up enthusiasm. The survey showed that 40 percent of Republicans and 41 percent of tea party supporters say they are more interested in these elections than those of 2008, and among strong supporters of the tea party, 49 percent describe the midterms that way.

Interest alone doesn't tell the whole story. What will count in the final weeks is enthusiasm, commitment and shoe leather.

In 2008, Democrats put together an impressive get-out-the-vote operation. It was built upon an army of volunteers and on sophisticated metrics that told the Obama team just how many face-to-face contacts it would take to virtually ensure that an Obama voter would show up at the polls on Election Day.

The Democratic effort topped the 2004 mobilization operation built by George W. Bush's reelection campaign and the Republican National Committee. Their program used neighbor-to-neighbor contact in heavily Republican areas, and market research and micro-targeting to reach potential supporters in otherwise Democratic areas.

Democrats are counting on the organization they built two years ago to help mobilize their base. They also take some hope from the fact that the Republican National Committee has fallen behind in funding.

The tea party movement has helped nominate several Republican candidates whose readiness is questionable and who may cost the GOP the chance to take away a seat from the Democrats. The nomination of Christine O'Donnell in Delaware turned an almost certain GOP pickup into a Senate seat now very likely to stay with the Democrats. In Nevada, Sharron Angle's weaknesses have helped the embattled Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, maintain his hope of holding his seat.

But the flip side of this is that the interest and commitment among many tea party supporters still appear likely to be a big asset to GOP candidates as they seek to turn out a big vote.

Just 12 percent of Democrats in the Post-Kaiser-Harvard survey said they are very likely to attend a political rally, meeting or speech between now and Election Day. Among Republicans, 16 percent say they're very likely to participate in one of those events. But among tea party supporters the number jumps to 26 percent, and among strong tea party supporters it is one-third.

The gap is equally significant in another crucial indicator: whether people are very likely to try to persuade someone to vote for a particular candidate or party. Political operatives and political scientists have proved in recent years that few things are more effective in boosting turnout than direct contact with voters - especially direct contact from someone voters know personally.

Who is ready to proselytize on behalf of candidates over the next few weeks? Just 22 percent of Democrats say they are very likely to do so, compared with 30 percent of Republicans, with liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans more committed. Topping them all are tea party supporters, 39 percent of whom say they'll very likely make the effort to persuade others. And among strong tea party supporters, 49 percent say they're ready to do so.

It obviously takes more than answering a question on a national survey to help turn out the vote in November. Through the Obama campaign offshoot, Organizing for America, Democrats are making huge efforts to communicate with those first-time 2008 voters. Anyone who was on the Obama lists two years ago has been bombarded with e-mails, many targeted by Zip code and by past voting behavior, encouraging them to take this election seriously. The president has repeatedly sought to amplify those targeted messages with his campaign rallies and speeches.

Those efforts may bear fruit, particularly in competitive races in states or districts with a preponderance of Democrats. But the Post-Kaiser-Harvard survey points in the direction that so many other indicators have this year. Republicans are more motivated, and the tea party is providing much of the energy.

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