Is the Tea Party scaring Republicans too?

A poll finds that over half of them aren't fans of the movement. But what does that mean?

Topics: Tea Parties, War Room,

Is the Tea Party scaring Republicans too?A participant in the Atlanta Tea Party tax protest

CNN has an interesting new poll comparing the attitudes of Republicans who identify with the Tea Party movement to those who don’t. Perhaps surprisingly, the survey finds that fully 51 percent of Republicans define themselves as non-Tea Party members have neutral, conflicted or negative views toward the movement. The other 49 percent say they are either part of the movement or in agreement with it philosophically.

According to CNN’s polling director, this split “effectively boils down to the century-old contest between the conservative and moderate wings of the party.” But that doesn’t seem quite right.

While the data does show that there are some clear differences between Tea Party and non-Tea Party Republicans, it’s hard not to conclude that Republicans generally share a thoroughly conservative political philosophy. Consider some of the areas where the two groups are fairly similar:

  • 79 percent of Tea Party Republicans believe that abortion either be banned completely or legal only in rare circumstances; 70 percent of non-Tea Party Republicans feel the same way
  • 52 percent of Tea Party Republicans still believe that homosexuality is primarily the product of environmental factors and upbringing; so do 44 percent of non-Tea Partiers
  • 65 percent of Tea Party Republicans say that religion should have major influence, some influence or be the sole deciding factor in setting policy; 59 percent of non-Tea Partiers do too
  • Fewer than half of Tea Party Republicans think that evolution is definitely or probably true (38 percent to be exact); the same is true for non-Tea Partiers (47 percent)

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And here are some areas where the differences are more pronounced:

  • 62 percent of Tea Partiers want the Department of Education abolished, compared to 22 percent of non-Tea Partiers
  • While clear majorities from both groups say that Social Security is a “serious” problem, non-Tea Partiers are much more likely to disagree with the characterization that the program is a “monstrous lie” and a “failure” — terms Rick Perry has used to describe it
  • 58 percent of Tea Partiers say that global warming is an unproven theory, but only 38 percent of non-Tea Partiers share that view

Granted, the topics that were addressed in this poll are somewhat random, but I don’t think this is what the “classic” moderate/conservative divide in the GOP looked like. There’s too much common ground, and even where there are differences, a not insignifcant number of non-Tea Partiers still express far right views.

The classic divide is a throwback to a time when there were (many) authentically liberal Republicans and when Southern conservatives were still largely aligned with the Democratic Party. This was the dynamic that produced the Goldwater/Rockefeller, Reagan/Ford, and Reagan/George H.W. Bush battles — contests in which there were clear and major ideological differences between each side. It’s hard to imagine now, but Bush ran in 1980 as a supporter of abortion rights and the Equal Rights Amendment and he made attacks on supply-side economics (“voodoo economics”) a major point of emphasis.

That kind of divide just doesn’t exist in today’s GOP, which long ago turned its back on northeast-flavored liberalism and embraced southern conservatism. If anything, the Tea Party/non-Tea Party divide that CNN’s poll identifies seem more tactical in nature — both sides are fundamentally conservative, but non-Tea Partiers seem slightly more mindful that certain “pure” conservative messages sound too extreme. So they’re more willing to say that Social Security isn’t a failure or that the Education department shouldn’t be abolished. Many of them also seem to recognize that the Tea Party itself is a potential liability for their party, and are distancing themselves from it.

There is some significance to this, especially as it relates to the 2012 race. There’s a temptation to say that non-Tea Partiers may have the numbers to help nominate Mitt Romney over Rick Perry. And maybe they will. But this would not be a triumph of “moderates,” even though Romney has been described as one. His platform is far to the right, as every ambitious Republican’s needs to be these days. But he’s wrapped in more moderate-seeming packaging than Perry — no inflammatory rhetoric about Social Security, for instance. In other words, he’s roughly where the 51 percent of non-Tea Party Republicans are — clearly and firmly on the right ideologically, but mindful of the downside of being too closely identified with the Tea Party and some of its pet causes.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

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