With Saturday’s much-publicized rally in Searchlight, Nevada, there is lots of talk about the effect that the tea party movement could have on this November’s elections.
But several polls released this week suggest that the only thing new about the tea party movement might be its name – and that the tea partiers themselves are simply the loudest, most revved-up subset of Republicans.
Quinnipiac’s March 24 survey found that, contrary to the notion that they’re a newly mobilized force of previously apolitical independents, tea party supporters represent the right-most flank of the Republican core. Tea partiers, who made up 13 percent of Quinnipiac’s nationwide sample, approved of the Republican Party by a 60 to 20 percent margin; among independents, by contrast, the GOP’s approval was 28-42 percent.
74 percent of tea partiers identified as Republicans or Republican-leaning independents, while only 16 percent said they were Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents. Only 15 percent voted for Barack Obama, while 77 percent went for John McCain (suggesting little of the allegedly rampant “buyer’s remorse”). And while Sarah Palin has an upside-down favorable rating (33-51 percent) among all voters, tea partiers view her favorably by a 72-14 percent spread.
The activation of this die-hard base is what’s helping the Republicans gain an edge in voter intensity going into the midterm election. But there are a few races where there’ll be viable third-party candidate with tea party ties on the ballot – and in these cases, that intensity could spell disaster for the GOP. Quinnipiac finds that the GOP leads the generic House ballot (which asks which party one plans to vote for in November’s congressional elections) 44-39 percent; but when a tea party option is included, the Democrats gain a 36-25 percent edge over the GOP, with the tea party option at 15 percent.
The same dynamic is evident in a March 25 Harris Poll, which looked at a hypothetical 2012 election. It found Barack Obama would defeat Mitt Romney 46-39 percent, but in a three-way race between Obama, Romney, and Sarah Palin as a tea party candidate, it turns into a 45-24-18 percent rout for Obama. The pattern is the same: the Democratic share stays almost the same, while the GOP vote is splintered by the presence of an even more conservative alternative.
In other words, the tea party movement could be as much a curse for the GOP as a blessing.