Where Does the Tea Party Stand With Americans, New Congress?

BY Dante Chinni  January 7, 2011 at 2:46 PM EST

Tea Party members

On Thursday, as their first act, members of the new Republican-led House read the U.S. Constitution aloud. The reading was not about civics – one would assume lawmakers have the basics down by now – it was a sign to the Tea Party groups around the U.S. that the Republicans heard them.

As the new GOP House works its way into the term the Tea Party organizations loom large.

“As you get down to work, there are a few things to remember,” Judson Phillips, founder of Tea Party Nation wrote in an open letter to new House Speaker John Boehner. “You became Speaker because America, led by the Tea Party, repudiated Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi and the party of socialism.”

That is clearly one interpretation of the midterms of November, but judging from a recent poll broken into our 12 Patchwork Nation county types it may be overstating the impact of the groups. A December poll from the Pew Center for the People and the Press finds Americans are, at best, largely ambivalent about the Tea Parties – particularly in the nation’s most populous areas. In some places, opposition to them outweighs support.

That’s not to say to say the Tea Party is not a player in the new Congress, clearly it is. But the GOP may want to be careful in how tightly it embraces its newest group of activist grassroots supporters.

There are large parts of the country that, on the whole, aren’t sure what to make of the movement – and one especially crucial county type for 2012 seems quite skeptical.

Tea Party Movement: Agree, Disagree or No Opinion?

Community TypeAgree/Strongly AgreeDisagree/Strongly DisagreeNo Opinion
Monied ‘Burbs27.532.440.1
Minority Central25.314.760
Evangelical Epicenters31.38.460.2
Tractor Country403030
Campus and Careers27.134.338.6
Immigration Nation34.830.338.4
Industrial Metropolis15.941.842.3
Boom Towns30.326.143.6
Service Center28.622.349.1
Empty Nests26.426.447.2
Military Bastions30.423.246.4
Mormon Outposts255025

Source: Patchwork Nation analysis of Pew Center for the People and the Press poll

Strengths and Weaknesses

There are a few county types where the Tea Party looks to have support. More than 30 percent of those surveyed in the socially conservative Evangelical Epicenters, the formerly growing Boom Towns, the Military Bastions near armed forces facilities and the Latino-heavy Immigration Nation counties say they “agree” or “strongly agree” with the Tea Party movement.

Those communities have long been largely supportive of the Tea Parties for different reasons. The Epicenters, for instance, have gravitated toward the religious, “9/12″ aspects of the Tea Party. The Boom Towns, many of which are still suffering through the depths of the housing crisis, have seen the Tea Parties as an outlet for economic anger. And many living in Immigration Nation counties have found something to support in the Tea Parties’ plans for tightening immigration laws.

But in at least three of those county types, it’s not clear how powerful the Tea Party’s impact is. The Republican Party’s support is not in doubt in them. The exception is Immigration Nation, which on the whole voted for Barack Obama in 2008. And in those counties in particular, it’s not clear if a strong anti-immigration message is a net positive at election time. There are many Latinos among the electorate there who may take exception.

The Tea Party, however, may represent a real challenge for the GOP in the wealthy suburban Monied ‘Burbs – the 286 counties that hold 69 million people and that often end up being critical at election time. There, the feelings about the Tea Party movement are less positive.

While 27 percent of those polled in the Burbs say they “agree” or “strongly agree” with the Tea Party, more than 32 percent say they “disagree” or “strongly disagree” with it.

Again, that’s not a big surprise. The Burbs, as we note in the book “Our Patchwork Nation,” are moderate in their voting habits. Out of all of Patchwork Nation’s 12 community types, the Monied Burbs are the least tethered to ideology. The vote in them tends to be more tied to state of the country, and particularly the economy, when Election Day comes. The vote in them swings, sometimes dramatically.

In 2010, for instance, the congressional vote in the Burbs swung to the GOP after swinging heavily to President Obama in 2008. And there is no reason to believe the vote is stable now. It could just as likely swing back in 2012.

How Close is Too Close?

And thus, the challenge for the new Republican majority.

The GOP wants to keep its new, enthusiastic Tea Party wing close. The tea partiers have already threatened to challenge sitting Republicans in their primaries if the grassroots groups feel the party is not paying enough attention to their demands.

But the moderate Monied Burbs will be watching. Already they are leery and going too far to please the Tea Party could cause problems with voters in those counties.

In fact everyone will be watching. The Tea Party movement has been in the headlines for coming up on two year now, but a large plurality of people still have no opinion of the groups.

One way or another, that will almost certainly change in the next year as the Tea Party movement makes itself better known as a force in Washington.