01/31/2010 - Washington's frenzied embrace of all things populist in recent weeks notwithstanding, it is far too early to say how much of an impact the Tea Party movement will have on elections this year. The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found just 49% expressing either a positive or negative opinion about the Tea Party movement. Similarly, the Field Poll found only about half of California voters expressing a general view of the movement.
But a number of public opinion trends suggest that the movement is likely to attract supporters as it becomes better known. These include: a surge in anti-incumbent sentiment, growing public concerns about big government and the budget deficit, and real anger at Wall Street and the big banks. Most importantly, these sentiments have increased markedly among political independents, who are most likely to be attracted to third party movements.
Still, the hurdles ahead for the movement are considerable. First, a third party needs a visible, credible leader. Ross Perot's Reform Party tapped in to the anti-incumbent, anti-Washington mood of the early 1990's because Perot convincingly made the case for many Americans. The Tea Party needs a strong voice to make a big impact. News reports of divisions within the movement as it gathers for a national convention are not a good sign. Secondly, independents, and swing voters generally, are for the most part centrists, who typically are not attracted to political extremes, their discontents notwithstanding.
That may be a significant problem for the Tea Party movement. In California, the Field Poll found that identification with the Tea Party movement was concentrated mostly among strong conservatives. About half (46%) of strong conservatives said they identified a lot with the Tea Party movement compared with only 13% of moderate conservatives and only 5% of middle-of-the-roaders. (One indication of its current appeal is that only 29% of Californians who identify with the Tea Party movement think that President Obama was born in the United States, according to the poll.)
Perhaps not surprisingly, Americans surveyed have mixed views about the movement, as the NBC/WSJ poll and others have found. How those numbers change will be significant for both parties.
The movement is ideologically a natural ally of the Republican Party, so it could hurt the GOP if it fields its own candidates for races. On the other hand, it could help the Republicans if it galvanizes the conservative vote, even if the movement itself doesn't achieve broad acceptance among independents and swing voters. This seems to be what occurred in the Republican victory in the Massachusetts senate election.
Read the full debate on the Tea Party movement on the New York Times' Web site.