Tea Party Economic Gloom Fuels Republican Momentum, Poll Shows

Tea Party Economic Gloom Fuels Republican Momentum, Poll
Supporters attend at a Tea Party rally in Beverly Hills, California. Photographer: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Tea Party activists, once on the fringe of the Republican mainstream, are fueling the party’s momentum in the midterm elections, a Bloomberg National poll shows.

Four of five Tea Party supporters who say they plan to vote in the November congressional elections will back Republicans, even though one-third describe themselves as independents. Eighty-five percent of these respondents say the economy will improve with Republicans in control of Congress.

These Super Republicans are more energized than other likely voters and more apt to view this election as exceptionally important. Tea Party backers who plan to vote put a higher priority than other voters on cutting spending and lowering taxes. They also favor making people wait longer to receive full Social Security benefits and slashing money for research of Alzheimer’s and other diseases as a way to narrow the deficit.

The members of this fiscally conservative movement take a darker view of the economy than most voters in the poll. Half say they have no confidence they will have sufficient funds to live on in retirement and more than half worry their children’s quality of life will be worse than their own.

“I am nervous for my grandson,” says poll respondent Cindy Young, 55, a dairy farmer in Wisconsin who describes herself as a Tea Party supporter. “He’s only two years old and I feel he has no chance in this world if it keeps on this way.”

Overall, about one-third of all likely voters in the poll conducted Oct. 7-10 by Selzer & Co. say they support the Tea Party.

Lower Taxes

Business leaders have struggled to understand what the Tea Party movement means for proposals they support, Bloomberg Businessweek reports in its Oct. 15 issue. Respondents who identify with the Tea Party are almost unanimous in saying it stands for lower taxes, smaller government and personal responsibility. More than six in 10 say it advocates government based on Christian principles. They are more intense than other voters in seeking a rollback of the changes passed by the Democratic-controlled Congress.

The movement’s rise coincides with increasing voter concern over the economy. Growth slipped to a 1.7 percent annual pace in the second quarter from 3.7 percent in the first and 5 percent in the final three months of 2009. Unemployment stood at 9.6 percent in September, down from a 26-year high of 10.1 percent in October 2009.

‘Pledge to America’

Eight of 10 Tea Party voters back the “Pledge to America,” the Republican Party’s road map for governing if it gains control of Congress in the Nov. 2 elections. An overwhelming majority say they want a repeal of the health-care law championed by President Barack Obama. That compares with about half of all likely voters who say they support repeal and the Republican agenda.

Tea Party supporters are more likely than other voters to be white, married, 55 and older, and call themselves born-again Christians.

“The Tea Party is positioning itself as unaligned,” says Ann Selzer, president of the Des Moines, Iowa-based company that conducted the poll. “But in every way we’ve looked at it, they look like Republicans.”

They also are more likely to be suspicious of the Federal Reserve, which sets monetary policy. Six out of 10 Tea Party supporters who plan to vote say they want to overhaul or abolish the Fed, compared with 45 percent of all likely voters. A similar 63 percent of Tea Party supporters say they believe the 2008 rescue package for the financial sector -- known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program -- has made the economy weaker.

Auto Bailout

Tea Party supporters also have more negative sentiments about incumbents who voted for TARP or the government program to rescue the automobile industry. Almost seven in 10 Tea Party advocates say they would be less likely to support a candidate who voted for the bank rescue or the auto bailout. Half of all likely voters said the same about the financial rescue and a plurality said so about the plan for automakers.

Half of the Tea Party voters consider the federal debt -- estimated at $1.3 trillion in fiscal 2010 by the Congressional Budget Office -- to be the most important issue facing the country, compared with 27 percent of all likely voters. And they are willing to make hard choices to cut the costs.

Fifty-three percent would consider raising the age for Medicare benefits and 58 percent would consider raising the age for Social Security benefits. That compares with 47 percent of all likely voters who would consider Medicare changes and 49 percent who would change Social Security law.

Infrastructure Spending

Two-thirds of Tea Party supporters also would consider cutting spending on roads and bridges; 63 percent say they would be willing to reduce research funds for Alzheimer’s and other diseases to narrow the deficit. One exception: Few want to abandon the Bush-era tax cuts, due to expire in December, that give breaks to high and middle-income Americans.

Mike Steinbrecher, 59, a teacher of American history in the San Francisco Bay area, says the government spends too much. “If I ran my house like that I would be in deep doo-doo,” he says.

Still, there are inconsistencies in Tea Party responses. Eight of 10 want the government to repeal the health-care bill, though majorities still say they would keep elements of the enhanced coverage it provides. Most want insurance companies to be prohibited from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions and they want more drug benefits for Medicare patients. They also want states to provide special plans to cover people with major health problems.

Exceptionally Important

Tea Party supporters also are the most enthusiastic potential voters for the congressional elections. Fifty-six percent of Tea Party supporters who are likely to vote say the November elections are exceptionally important, compared with 43 percent of all likely voters.

“It’s just everything gradually building up got worse and worse,” says Susan Norwood, 50, a Texas housewife, who has been using Facebook to promote Tea Party-backed candidates. “We have to get all the ones who are in there out and get new ones in.”

The electorate is almost evenly split when asked about the influence of the movement. Twenty-eight percent of likely voters say the election of Tea Party candidates would have no impact on the country, 29 percent say the country would be in a worse position and 33 percent say it would improve.

As Obama tries to drum up voter enthusiasm for Democratic candidates, he is likely to have little appeal for Tea Party supporters. In the poll, almost nine of 10 of the movement’s backers disapprove of the job the president is doing. They are particularly negative about his approach to the business community: Three-quarters of Tea Party supporters say Obama is too anti-business compared with one third of all likely voters.

‘Laughing at Us’

The political establishment is “laughing at us,” Young says. “When you watch TV you see they are not listening to the people.”

Those who identify with the Tea Party also take a harder line on illegal immigration: 54 percent of Tea Party backers say they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports a proposal to change the 14th Amendment of the Constitution to prevent the children of non-citizens born in the U.S. from automatically becoming citizens, compared with 48 percent of all likely voters.

A plurality of all likely voters say they would be less likely to back a candidate whose campaign ads were financed by anonymous business groups. For Tea Party backers, a plurality said this wouldn’t matter to their vote.

The poll of 721 likely voters has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.

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