Is there such a thing as a tea party Democrat? The answer, it seems, is yes. Polls show the group exists, but determining its impact is difficult. What role the group could play in the 2012 elections is even murkier, except as a rallying cry for Republicans who say the movement is a bigger tent than it appears.
Recently, Republican leaders have gone out of their way to make the argument that the tea party is more than just a group of (somewhat) disaffected Republicans who are angry about government spending they perceive to be out of control and the large size of the federal government.
Republicans contend that the tea party movement, which surged in the 2010 midterm elections, includes not just Republicans but also independents and Democrats.
In announcing her 2012 presidential bid this month, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) described the tea party this way: “It’s made up of disaffected Democrats. It’s made up of independents. It’s made up of people who have never been political a day in their life.”
In March, former Republican National Committee chairman Michael S. Steele said there are “many Democrats, conservative Democrats, in the tea party movement.”
And at a 2012 presidential forum in New Orleans in June, Bachmann estimated that the tea party consists of 60 percent Republicans, 20 percent independents and 20 percent Democrats.
Democratic leaders, meanwhile, tend to dismiss the tea party as a bloc of voters who are bound to vote Republican.
So who’s right?
This answer lies, as it often does in politics, somewhere in the middle.
Polling has never shown Democrats to be 20 percent of the tea party, as Bachmann claims, but it has shown there are a significant number of Democrats who claim to be part of the movement. Often, that number is somewhere around 10 percent.
The Winston Group, a GOP polling firm, last year showed that 13 percent of tea partyers were Democrats; Gallup put the number at 15 percent.
On the lower end, the number was 9 percent in a TargetPoint poll and just 4 percent in a CNN-Opinion Research poll.
More recently, a poll for Resurgent Republic, a Republican-aligned conglomerate of pollsters and consultants, showed that 11 percent of those who viewed the tea party favorably were Democrats. (That’s not an ideal measure, of course, since one need not be a tea party member to view it favorably.)
Who are these tea party Democrats?
Republican pollster Dan Hazelwood said that just as some Democrats moved to the GOP because of social issues in recent decades, some are now moving to the tea party because of fiscal issues.
“They have the same populist point of view of the rest of the tea party movement,” Hazelwood said. “Their ideal would be a Dennis Kucinich type who was anti-spending and for budget austerity. So they are people who are adrift on the left because of spending and on the right because of social issues.”
Though there has been some intermingling between the two camps, the country has yet to see a formidable Democrat emerge as a tea party candidate.
In the 2010 election cycle, the Tea Party Express endorsed a “Blue Dog” Democrat, Rep. Walt Minnick of Idaho, in his unsuccessful reelection bid (Minnick wound up rejecting the endorsement).
Former Democratic nominee Jack Davis ran on the “Tea Party” line in the recent New York special election but received just 9 percent of the vote. (Davis had run three times before as a Democrat and seemed to have a flexible ideology.)
There was also a Democratic tea party supporter who ran a meagerly funded primary campaign against Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) in 2010, taking 15 percent of the vote.
Given that almost all of the 2010 tea party candidates ran under the GOP banner, we might have expected those who consider themselves tea party Democrats to vote Republican, thereby creating a larger number of crossovers than typically seen in an election.
But according to exit polls, the 7 percent of Democrats who voted for Republicans in 2010 was in keeping with past results. (Ten percent of Democrats voted for John McCain for president in 2008, and 7 percent of Democrats voted Republican in the 2006 House elections, for example.) And given that 2010 was a wave year for Republicans, it would have been an ideal year for more Democrats to cross over.
In other words, it’s very hard to measure what, if any, impact tea party Democrats had on the 2010 election.
The big shift was among independents, who swung for Republicans by a 19-point margin.
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