If you’ve been paying attention to American politics over the past two years, you’ve no doubt had the opportunity to watch the phenomenal rise of the Tea Party movement. Fashioned as a people-powered, grassroots movement (but not one without its fair share of financial backing from a handful of political elites), we’ve been told repeatedly that Tea Party activists represent how average Americans are feeling right now — and these average Americans are (allegedly) pissed.
Well, if we are to believe the most recent Associated Press-GfK poll (and we have no credible reason not to pay it at least some deference), then the Tea Party might not be so average after all.
According to the poll released yesterday, just three in 10 Americans identify themselves as Tea Party supporters. To be sure, that is a substantial number that politicians ignore at their own political peril. This isn’t just a couple of dude’s in someone’s basement — but it’s also hardly a majority. Actually, it’s not even close. If the Tea Party claims to represent mainstream American thought during these difficult times, wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect that number to be hovering (at the very least) somewhere around 50 percent, if not much higher?
Of course, I guess there’s the potential that some average Americans are mistakenly disassociating the Tea Party from their anti-government message. Perhaps these folks don’t like some of the more vitriolic elements of the movement that have reared their ugly heads, but are still generally supportive of the Tea Party’s mission — a near-libertarian lack of government involvement in just about everything but national defense.
Indeed, perhaps this phenomenon is similar to what some Democrats (including myself) have argued about “Obamacare”: the new law may not be overwhelmingly popular as a whole, but people love the specific things it accomplishes. (To name a few: eliminating pre-existing condition exclusions, allowing children to stay on their parents’ insurance until age 26, closing the Medicare prescription drug “donut hole,” etc.) Maybe the same logic could be applied to the Tea Party’s anti-government crusade?
Unfortunately, that argument isn’t borne out by the numbers, either.
While a huge percentage of Tea Party supporters (86 percent) want less government “intrusion” on people and businesses, only 35 percent of other voters agree. That seems strange, considering how often Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, et al. have told me how much Americans hate the federal government “meddling” in things. Furthermore, while 84 percent of Tea Party sympathizers disapprove of the way President Obama is handling his job (a surprisingly lower number than I would have anticipated), only 35 percent of others surveyed concur. Again, this also seems strange since average Americans quite clearly hate Barack Obama and everything he does — or so the cable news networks tell me.
So maybe the Tea Party isn’t quite so mainstream after all?
Now, to be fair, this survey is no reason for liberals to be dancing in the streets. This is, after all, only one poll and, as such, should be taken with a grain of salt. And what’s more, even if the AP-GfK poll were a completely accurate representation of the electorate, Democrats still got their butts handed to them a few weeks back. Why? Because way more Tea Party people showed up at the polls — in fact, exit polls show more than four in 10 midterm voters supported the movement. Clearly, there’s a lesson here: it doesn’t matter if the vast majority of Americans (allegedly) don’t support the Tea Party agenda. If you don’t get them excited to vote, you get slaughtered.
And what of the Tea Party? If this poll were a completely accurate representation of the electorate (which, again, it’s probably not, but it surely still paints a somewhat cogent picture), are they really just a very conservative group of enthusiastic activists positioned far to the right of the views and appetites of mainstream Americans? Maybe. Only time will tell the long-term political resonance of the movement with the ordinary voter.
But one thing is for certain: for better or worse, the Tea Party will have a huge effect on the Republican Party — certainly in the upcoming congressional session and probably throughout the 2012 election cycle. Indeed, with 60 percent of Republicans identifying themselves as supporters, these anti-government activists are well positioned to play the kingmaker as the party prepares to pick its presidential nominee — a dynamic that bodes well for movement favorites like Sarah Palin and not-so-well for establishment types like Mitt Romney.
But do you know who the true winner is if the Tea Party remains the stubbornly dominant political force in the Republican Party heading into 2012? Who stands to benefit most from a deeply divisive, Palin-like candidate?
Barack Obama. Ironic?
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