A majority of tea party Republicans say anti-terrorism policies are going "too far" in restricting civil liberties, a complete reversal for a group who at its beginnings thought Washington was not being aggressive enough on terrorism.
The striking shift comes from a Pew Research Center poll released Friday that asked respondents which concerns them more about anti-terrorism policies: that they "have gone too far in restricting civil liberties" or "not gone far enough to protect the country." By 55 to 31 percent, more Republicans and GOP-leaning independents who agree with the tea party movement say civil liberties are the bigger concern. In 2010, by comparison, tea party Republicans broke by more than 3 to 1 in the opposite direction, 63 to 20 percent more concerned about not going far enough to protect the country.
The survey mirrors growing concerns about privacy also seen in a Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week, which found broad concern that National Security Agency surveillance programs are intruding on some Americans' civil liberties. The survey also found that conservative Republicans are more apt than moderates to prioritize privacy concerns, switching places from a 2010 poll when moderates were more worried about privacy.
In the Pew Research poll, fully 62 percent of tea party Republicans disapprove of the NSA program - 26 points higher than the public overall - and 87 percent believe the government uses the data it collects for other purposes than terrorism investigations.
The sharp shift among tea party-aligned Republicans represents a growing schism within the Republican Party on national security. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie lambasted the "strain of libertarianism going through both parties" and suggesting they explain their position to victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He didn't excuse Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a tea party favorite and 2016 presidential hopeful, from the browbeating.
While tea party Republicans in the survey were clearly more concerned about civil liberties, those who are not aligned with the tea party split about evenly in concern about going too far to limit civil liberties (40 percent) and doing enough to protect the country (42 percent).
While the distance between comparison polls is three years, a rash of recent events help explain why tea party Republicans are reacting so sharply. President Obama is deeply unpopular among tea party supporters, and his recent role as defender in chief for NSA surveillance programs may have stained their image. It's also possible revelations that the Internal Revenue Service singled out tea party groups for extra scrutiny in 2012 has heightened sensitivities among the tea party movement's supporters.
The debate over the NSA programs within the Republican Party is far from over. With Christie and Paul both 2016 hopefuls, the issue has the making of a key dividing line in the battle for the party's nomination.
The Pew Research Center poll was conducted July 17 to 21, 2013 among a random national sample of 1,480 adults reached on landline and cellular phones. The margin of error for overall results is three percentage points; the error margin is 7.3 percentage points for the sample of 242 Republicans and GOP-leaning independents who agree with the tea party, and 6.4 points among other Republican leaners.
Clement is a survey research analyst with Capital Insight, the independent polling group of Washington Post Media. Capital Insight pollster Jon Cohen contributed to this report.