Nearly six in 10 Americans do not have an opinion of the tea party political movement, but those who agree with the activists are less likely to vote for incumbents or backers of healthcare and economic bailout legislation, a new poll shows.
The tea party, which is actually a loose coalition rather than an organized party, has already claimed political successes in Utah and Kentucky, putting incumbents and establishment figures on notice that this election cycle could be particularly bruising.
Results of the Society for Human Resource Management/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll, conducted with the Pew Research Center, suggest the wariness is well grounded, but they also show the activists have far to go to become major players in the political process.
Overall, 25 percent of respondents said they agreed with the tea party, 18 percent said they disagreed, 31 percent said they had no opinion either way and 25 percent said they had never heard of the movement.
More than half of Republicans and a quarter of Independents -- but just 6 percent of Democrats -- say they agree with the tea party movement. An outsized amount of that support comes from older Americans and whites. Just 4 percent of blacks and 12 percent of all nonwhites agree with the movement.
The generation gap is particularly pronounced. One-third of those at least 65 years old agree with the tea party -- potentially bad news for Democrats who rely on backing from seniors, a reliable voting contingent. But the poll also shows the movement has not found widespread support among the youngest voters. Just 12 percent of those 18-29 years old agree with the tea party. In fact, half of that age group has not heard of the movement and another quarter has no opinion.
At rallies and at the ballot box in some races, tea party backers have made much of their throw-the-bums-out attitude. But this poll suggests not all bums are alike in the eyes of tea-party backers. More than half of those who agree with the tea party say they are less likely to vote for an incumbent, but they hold special scorn for those who voted for the healthcare bill that President Obama signed into law in March and for lawmakers who supported the government providing emergency loans to banks and businesses. About three-quarters of those who agree with the tea party say they are less likely to vote for backers of those measures.
Among all adults, though, incumbency and the healthcare vote were much less polarizing. More than half of respondents said incumbency would not make a difference in how they voted. About a quarter of them -- 43 percent of Republicans -- said they would be less likely to vote for someone already in office, while 15 percent said they would be more likely to do so.
Here, too, a generation gap was evident. Just 13 percent of the youngest adults said they were less likely to vote for an incumbent, compared with 36 percent of those at least 65 years old.
Republicans in Congress have built much of their pre-election message on opposition to the healthcare measure pushed through by Democrats. This poll suggests they have gotten the point across to their base but have had less success getting self-described Independents to view support for the healthcare bill as a negative.
Three in four Republicans said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who supported the healthcare legislation, while about 70 percent of Democrats said they would be more likely to vote for a health bill supporter. Independents -- the voting bloc both parties need to succeed in November -- were evenly divided. About one-third said they would be more likely to vote for someone who supported the health bill, about one-third said they would be less likely and about one-third said it would make no difference.
The bailout vote could be a much harder sell for lawmakers and for new candidates who say they favored the program. Just 14 percent said they were more likely to vote for someone who backed the bailout. Almost half of respondents, 49 percent, said they would be less likely to vote for someone who favored the bailout, while 32 percent said it would make no difference.
Pessimistic views of that vote were widespread, with 63 percent of Republicans, 48 percent of Independents and 41 percent of Democrats saying they were less likely to vote for someone who supported the bailout package.
Overall, 42 percent said they were more likely to vote for a candidate who is willing to compromise -- although 40 percent of Republicans called themselves less likely to do that. Being a candidate who has not held elective office was not a divisive quality.
This article appears in the May 29, 2010, edition of NJ Daily.