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Amid Sagging Support, Does Tea Party Have Staying Power for 2012?

November 30, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
The Tea Party burst on the scene as a new political force, but does it have staying power? Judy Woodruff discusses the movement's influence with The Pew Research Center's Andy Kohut and The New York Times' Kate Zernike.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Next, the Tea Party burst on the scene as a new political force, but does it have staying power?

Judy Woodruff has our look.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A fresh survey released yesterday by the Pew Research Center found that support for the Tea Party had decreased over the past year. The decline was seen nationally, but also in districts represented by members of the House Tea Party Caucus.

The Pew poll found that 27 percent of Americans now disagree with the movement, while 20 percent support it. In Tea Party-represented districts, 25 percent of respondents said they backed the movement, while 23 percent were against it.

To help us sort through the numbers and what they mean for the movement’s influence, we are joined by Andy Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, and Kate Zernike. She’s national correspondent for The New York Times and author of “Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America.”

Thank you both for being here.

Andy Kohut, let me start with you.

We just heard what these numbers say about what support for the Tea Party is like right now. What did it look like a year ago around the time of the midterms?

ANDREW KOHUT, Pew Research Center: At the time of the midterms, we had a plurality of Americans saying they agreed with the ideas of the Tea Party.

Now, keep in mind, most people — only about half of the people have an opinion, but among the people who do have an opinion, a plurality said, we agree with them. At the beginning of the year, when we asked people, what effect do you think the Tea Party is going to have on Congress, most people who had an opinion said it’s going to be a good effect.

By August, we had 29 percent to 22 percent plurality saying, by the way, they’re having a bad effect. And so we have seen a deterioration of the view that they’re a positive force here in Washington, and we have seen fewer people agreeing with them, both, as you pointed out, in the country nationwide and also in the 60 districts where members of the Republican — of the Tea Party Caucus come from.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Andy Kohut, you look at the polling numbers all the time. Is this a significant drop?

ANDREW KOHUT: It is pretty significant, given how influential they have been and how intense the views have been about the issues that they take on.

And what adds the significance to it is we see the same trend with respect to the Republican Party. It’s not just the Tea Party. Throughout much of this year, the early part of the year, even numbers of people had a favorable and unfavorable view of the Republican Party, just as they have of the Democratic Party.

By October of this year, we have a 36 percent to 55 percent margin saying, I have an unfavorable view of the Republican Party.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just by point of contrast, what about for the Democrats?

ANDREW KOHUT: For the Democrats, it’s 46-45. Now, that’s nothing to crow about…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

ANDREW KOHUT: … but it’s a lot better than 36-55. And there are some reasons. If you dig deeper into the trends, there’s some reasons for this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, just quickly on the Tea Party, Andy Kohut, just based on what you can see, can you tell why this has happened?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, I think it’s — there’s no direct reason, but a couple of things come to mind.

One, there’s a great deal of volatility about politics in this era when there’s so little — when you have 10 percent rating the Congress favorably, and 80 percent, 85 percent saying they’re angry with or frustrated with government. And so there’s that.

And, also, I think may be a performance issue. Especially in these districts, I think many of the people expected that the Tea Party would have a positive effect. And as we see with the Republican Party, they may be blaming the Tea Party for gridlock.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kate Zernike, you have studied the Tea Party. You have  looked at these numbers. What do you make of them?

KATE ZERNIKE, The New York Times: Well, I think as Andy mentioned, you know, so many people who supported the Tea Party — remember, four in 10 voters in the midterms told exit polls that they supported the Tea Party, but of those most people didn’t really know what the Tea Party was about.

They have now had some time to see what Tea Party lawmakers look like, to see what kind of policies they’re proposing. And I think they’re finding that, in fact, it’s no better than what they had when Democrats were in charge of the House.

I think, in particular, when you look at the reasons why, I think one reason that a lot of people gravitated toward the Tea Party was they were upset with the health care legislation of 2010 and how that had been negotiated. They felt like it was Washington at its worst.

And I think now they look at the debt ceiling agreement and the debt reduction commission and think that this, too, is Washington at its worst. But when health care was being debated, it was the Democrats in charge. Now it’s the Republicans, so the GOP is taking some of the blame.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But the Tea Party has remained as active or not in these — in these districts and in the media?

KATE ZERNIKE: Well, I think, certainly, the Tea Party has remained active. But I think there’s more of a split now between Tea Party activists at home and Tea Party lawmakers in Washington.

And I think their goals often don’t — don’t merge. When you look at earlier polls, polls that we did at The Times in July during the debt ceiling debate, Tea Party supporters wanted Republicans and Democrats to find some compromise. And they thought that the debt ceiling agreement should include both tax increases and cuts in spending, whereas Tea Party lawmakers were saying, we’re not going to compromise and we’re not going to do anything like raise taxes.

We’re not even going to close tax loopholes, because that might be seen as a tax increase. It’s got to be done purely through cutting spending. So there was a divergence in what people voting for Tea Party lawmakers wanted and what Tea Party lawmakers were trying to do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I should mention that we at the NewsHour talked today with Amy Kremer of the Tea Party Express, one of the leaders of the movement. We know there are a number of leaders.

Among other things, she said, well, part of this is due to the news media mischaracterizing what the Tea Party’s all about.

KATE ZERNIKE: Well, I think I would obviously disagree with that. I think that the media has actually given a lot of coverage to the Tea Party, and a lot of it’s been pretty fair.

I think, more likely, what’s happening is that people now have a sense of what the Tea Party really is. We see the same thing with Occupy Wall Street. People say, well, what does this stand for? What is it actually going to do?

With the Tea Party, people have now had a chance to see what the Tea Party looks like, what a Tea Party legislator is going to do once he or she gets to Congress, what kind of policies they’re going to propose, what it would mean for voters back home. I think that’s what they’re reacting to.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, I want to ask both of you what you think this could mean for the elections of next year, presidential and congressional.

Andy, what do you see?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, if the Republican Party continues to have a less favorable image, it’s seen as a party associated with extreme positions and not associated with compromise, and you have a very conservative candidate, it might hurt the very conservative candidate.

The other thing it could conceivably do, if there’s a Republican victor, and the Republican Party and Tea Party don’t recover, down the ticket, Republicans might do less well with regard to Congress than they might have if the Republican Party and the Tea Party had stronger images.

There’s one thing I would like that add…

Well, go ahead.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes. I was just — I was going to — I wanted Kate’s input on that question, if we could.

ANDREW KOHUT: Sure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kate, on — just looking at next year, what do you think this could portend?

KATE ZERNIKE: Well, I think it depends.

I mean, if the nominee is Mitt Romney, he’s not someone who is associated very strongly with the Tea Party, so I don’t think he will carry the Tea Party baggage into the election. If it’s Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann, there’s much more — they’re much more associated with Tea Party views.

You know, I tend to think that each party gets about two years. The Democrats had 2006 and 2008. And the Republicans will probably have 2010 and 2012 in congressional elections. But that’s just a guess. I still think the economy is the major point for the campaign next year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, we will leave it there.

And, Andy Kohut, we will let you finish that thought the next time you are with us.

ANDREW KOHUT: OK.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Andy Kohut, Kate Zernike, thank you.