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Patchwork Nation: Tea Party Driven by Long List of Issues

As analysts try to gauge the strength and meaning of the tea party movement there are two dominant questions: How much of the electorate do the disparate groups speak for and what is their primary objective?

Those are difficult questions to answer with a group as decentralized as the tea party, but a look at a recent Pew Research Center poll and a scan of some local tea party websites is revealing.

The numbers show that in most places the number of people who say they “agree” or “strongly agree” with the movement is somewhere under 40 percent. And a survey of tea party sites in the Patchwork Nation communities shows that several issues are driving the movement in different locales.

That’s probably what one would expect since tea party groups take pride in their locally controlled, grassroots foundation. But comparing the types of issues with the people in different locales who “agree” with the movement raises questions about the tea party’s cohesiveness.

Supporting the cause

A few weeks ago we looked at people registered online with the biggest tea party sites. That analysis showed them to be spread across the country, but with particularly heavy representation in communities than lean toward the GOP — the Boom Town counties that grew and diversified in the last decade, rural and agricultural Tractor Country counties and the Military Bastions.

The Pew survey data that loosely measures supporters shows a slightly different breakdown. The Boom Towns have more tea party supporters than most places — 41 percent say they “agree” with the groups. But in the socially conservative Evangelical Epicenter counties, 42 percent of the people say they “agree.” In the small town Service Worker Centers, 43 percent are in broad agreement with the tea party.

(The survey samples from Tractor Country and Mormon Outpost counties are too small to be statistically significant, but they show support as well.)

The places showing the least amount of support are the collegiate Campus and Career counties, where 28 percent of the people say they are at least somewhat in agreement with the tea party.

But what cause?

Out of Patchwork Nation’s 12 county types, there is one that’s particularly interesting: Latino-heavy Immigration Nation. Forty-six percent of those surveyed said they “agreed” with the tea party movement. Why is the support so strong? It may have something to do with what the tea party means there.

Last week, for instance, the Greater Phoenix tea party Patriots (Phoenix is in Maricopa County, an Immigration Nation locale) devoted much of their page to their concern that Puerto Rico was about to become the 51st state. And Sunday night the top “Current Events” link was about a sheriff’s deputy being shot and immigrants being suspected in the shooting. Look further down that page and you’ll see a “Hall of Shame” that largely consists of candidates and organizations that oppose Arizona’s new immigration law.

There is a great deal of concern about illegal immigration in greater Phoenix, of course. And as one might expect, it is a strong force behind the tea party organizations in the area. But look at different tea party pages and you’ll find very different emphases.

Up in Ronan, Mont., a town in Lake County (part of Tractor Country), the tea party group is focused on issues that tend to mean more in the rural Mountain West — property rights, gun rights, emergency preparedness, state sovereignty and the anti-abortion cause. Patchwork Nation blogger and University of Montana journalism professor Lee Banville went to a Ronan tea party meeting in February and found guns and gun laws to be the driving force. (For the record, Mr. Banville is a former editor of the Online NewsHour).

In suburban Philadelphia, the Valley Forge Patriots website is mainly concerned with taxation and government spending, with little talk of guns or immigration. The counties the group represents, Chester and Montgomery, may care about those topics, but those issues do not drive them.

The concerns of these tea party groups, in other words, are as much about the places themselves as they are about a movement. A list of tea party action items from these places would likely look very different in order at least.

Sometimes there are wide disparities even within a single local tea party group. Look further down the Greater Phoenix tea party site and you’ll find a Venn diagram containing “U.N. Withdrawal,” “Traditional Marriage,” “English as the Official Language,” “Entitlement Programs” and “Sheriff Joe” (Joe Arpaio, the illegal immigration hardliner opponent in Maricopa County).

Looking at the tea party movement through Patchwork Nation, its biggest challenge going forward is organizational. “Agree with the tea party” in Immigration Nation may mean something very different than in the wealthy Monied Burbs of Philadelphia or the Tractor Country town of Ronan.

Getting people from those three communities to meet or march is one thing. Getting them to coalesce around a common identity and legislative strategy is another.

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