Poll Finds Tea Party Anger Rooted in Issues of Class
By KATE ZERNIKE and MEGAN THEE-BRENAN
Published: April 14, 2010
Tea party supporters are wealthier and more well-educated than the general public, tend to be Republican, white, male, and married, and their strong opposition to the Obama administration is more rooted in political ideology than anxiety about their personal economic situation, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.
The 18 percent of Americans who identify themselves as Tea Party supporters look like Republicans in many ways, but they hold more conservative views on a range of issues and tend to be older than Republicans generally. They are also more likely than Republicans as a whole to describe themselves as “very conservative” and President Obama as “very liberal.”
And while most Republicans say they are “dissatisfied” with Washington, Tea Party supporters are more likely to classify themselves as “angry.”
Speculation and anecdotal evidence have often taken the place of concrete data about who supports the Tea Party movement, and the poll offers some surprising findings.
In some ways, Tea Party supporters look like the general public. For instance, despite their allusions to Revolutionary War-era tax protesters, most describe the amount they paid in taxes this year as “fair.” Most send their children to public schools, do not think Sarah Palin is qualified to be president, and, despite their push for smaller government, think that Social Security and Medicare are worth the cost. They are actually more likely than the general public to have returned their census forms, despite some conservative leaders urging a boycott.
Their fierce animosity toward Washington, and the president in particular, is rooted in deep pessimism about the direction of the country and the conviction that the policies of the Obama administration are disproportionately directed at helping the poor rather than the middle class or the rich.
The overwhelming majority of Tea Party supporters say Mr. Obama does not share the values most Americans live by, and that he does not understand the problems of people like themselves. More than half say the policies of the administration favor the poor, and 25 percent, compared with 11 percent of the general public, think that the administration favors blacks over whites. They are more likely than the general public, and Republicans, to say that too much has been made of the problems facing black people.
Asked what they are angry about, Tea Party supporters offered three main concerns: the recent health care overhaul, government spending, and a feeling that their opinions are not represented in Washington.
“The only way they will stop the spending is to have a revolt on their hands,” Elwin Thrasher, a 66-year-old semi-retired lawyer in Florida, said in an interview following the poll. “I’m sick and tired of them wasting money and doing what our founders never intended to be done with the federal government.”
They are far more pessimistic than Americans in general about the economy improving. More than 90 percent of Tea Party supporters think the country is headed in the wrong direction, compared with about 60 percent of the general public. About 6 in 10 say America’s best days are behind us when it comes to the availability of good jobs for American workers.
Nearly 9 in 10 disapprove of the job Mr. Obama is doing overall, and about the same percentage fault his handling on the specifics, too: health care, the economy, and the federal budget deficit. More than 8 in 10 hold an unfavorable view of him personally, and 92 percent believe he is moving the country toward socialism – an opinion shared by about half the general public. Tea Party supporters are also more likely than most Americans to believe, mistakenly, that the president has increased taxes for most Americans.
“I just feel he’s getting away from what America is,” said Kathy Mayhugh, 67, a retired medical transcriber in Jacksonville. “He’s a socialist. And to tell you the truth I think he’s a Muslim and trying to head us in that direction, I don’t care what he says. He’s been in office over a year and can’t find a church to go to. That doesn’t say much for him.”
The nationwide telephone poll was conducted April 5-12 with 1,580 adults. For the purposes of analysis, Tea Party supporters were oversampled, for a total of 881, and then weighted back to their proper proportion in the poll. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points for both all adults and Tea Party supporters.
The Tea Party supporters are more likely than the general public to say their personal financial situation is good or very good. But like the general public, 55 percent are concerned that someone in their household will be out of a job in the next year. And more than two-thirds say the recession has been difficult or caused hardship and major life changes. Like most Americans, they think the most pressing problem facing the country today are the economy and jobs.
But while most Americans blame the Bush administration or Wall Street for the current state of the American economy, the greatest number of Tea Party supporters blamed Congress.
Still, while they overwhelmingly disapprove of Congress, 4 in 10 Tea Party supporters, like most Americans, approve of the job their own representative is doing.
They do not want a third party, and say they usually or almost always vote Republican. The percentage holding a favorable opinion of former president George W. Bush — at 57 percent — almost exactly matches the percentage in the general public that holds an unfavorable view.
Dee Close, a 47-year-old homemaker in Memphis, said she was worried about a “drift” in the country. “Over the last 3 or 4 years I’ve realized how immense that drift has been away from what made this country great,” she said. “I’m angry because I feel that those who are elected hijack the country once they are elected to positions of power.”
She blamed Americans for being apathetic. “Most people are not even aware of how gullible they are,” she said. “They’re not educated enough to know what’s going on.”
Yet while the Tea Party supporters are more conservative than Republicans on social issues, they do not want to focus on those issues: about 8 in 10 say that they are more concerned with economic issues.
When talking about the Tea Party movement, the largest number of respondents said that the goal should be reducing the size of government, more than cutting the budget deficit, or lowering taxes.
And nearly three quarters said they would prefer smaller government even if it means spending on domestic programs would be cut.
But in follow up interviews, people said did not want to cut Medicare or Social Security — the biggest domestic programs – suggesting instead a focus on “waste.”
“I do believe we are responsible for the widow and the orphan,” said Richard Gilbert, a 72 year old retired teacher. “But I think there is a welfare class that lives for having children and receiving payment from the government for having those children. They have no incentive to do any better because they have been conditioned into it.”
Others defended being on Social Security while fighting big government by saying they had paid into the system, so deserved the benefits.
Others could not explain the contradiction.
“I guess I want smaller government and my Social Security,” said Jodine White, 62, of Rocklin, Calif. “I didn’t look at it from the perspective of losing things I need. I think I’ve changed my mind.”