Washington Post Survey of Tea Partiers: Conservative, Yes, But With Surprising Accents

The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation and Harvard University just published a survey of general public opinion towards government.  While Jon Cohen and Dan Balz wrote in the Sunday Post (and Ed O’Keefe opined in a succeeding blog post) that Americans currently express a serious lack of confidence in their government, the Liberal Ironist is more-interested in a subsection of questions dealing with a subsection of the general public.  (It’s always in such subsections that the real political movement is happening.)  The survey’s questions to Tea Party supporters regarding support for government provision of services reveals surprising divisions within the Tea Party over the benefit of certain government services, unsurprising consensus on others, and an interesting departure from the traditional Republican Party line.

The Tea Partiers’ responses, which you can find by following the hyperlink and then clicking on the “Results” heading reading “Tea Party,” indicate emphatic support (89%) for the current or an expanded role for the Federal Government in combating terrorism.  Only about 1/4 of Tea Party supporters endorse even the status-quo level of Federal involvement in either health care or gun control.  That’s business as usual for American conservatives.  But the Tea Partiers’ response to most other questions is surprising.  While 84% of Americans support a Federal role in environmental protection, 81% of Americans support a Federal role in reducing poverty, and 75% support a Federal role in setting educational standards, support for the current or increased Federal initiative on these issues among the polled Tea Party supporters is 56%, 52% and 50%, respectively.  Minorities support Federal regulation of Wall Street financial practices and promotion of traditional morality.

At least half of professed Tea Party supporters in a national opinion survey support at least the status quo level of Federal involvement in environmental protection, poverty-reduction programs, and education.  Support for the Federal role in education is particularly interesting, considering that it was controversially expanded by President Bush and Senator Kennedy through the No Child Left Behind Act back in 2001, and again by President Obama through new Federal guidelines for high schools just this year.  The enormous fall 2008 financial crash was definitely the result of progressively-risky forms of speculation by Wall Street hedge funds and investment banks; the fact that a majority of Tea Partiers don’t at least support in principle the Federal Government’s role in regulating the financial sector is a strong indicator of ideological commitment by at least the bare majority of that movement.

Finally, only 44% of Tea Party respondents support the idea of a Federal role in “advancing values and morality”–while 59% of the broader sample of Americans support that principle.  So: Tea Party supporters are significantly less socially-conservative than the general public.  The near-total absence of social issues from the Republicans’ “Pledge to America” would appear to be vindicated by this surprising case of the Tea Partiers’ libertarian streak.

Could it simply be that the survey’s sample of Tea Partiers is unrepresentative?  It’s possible.  Exit polls occasionally produce significantly more-Democratic electoral predictions than actual outcomes; this has led to conjectures, even in the very-conservative National Review, that Democrats are simply more-inclined to discuss their vote.  Some of the most-conservative Tea Party supporters may be systematically refusing to speak to pollsters; however, the low level of support for moral legislation relative to most conservatives suggests a libertarian streak in the sample that is an unlikely result if the more libertarian-minded respondents are declining to be surveyed.  It looks like Tea Partiers do have substantively libertarian tendencies–just not on all issues.

If anything, they are united in opposing Federal policies specifically on the most-provocative issues.

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