In 2006, Robert Putnam and David Campbell began a research project on political attitudes that included interviewing a nationally representative sample of 3,000 Americans. They then went back to talk to the same group of people over this summer. “As a result,” they explain, “we can look at what people told us, long before there was a Tea Party, to predict who would become a Tea Party supporter five years later.” Their findings are going to make a lot of people unhappy:
Early on, Tea Partiers were often described as nonpartisan political neophytes. Actually, the Tea Party’s supporters today were highly partisan Republicans long before the Tea Party was born, and were more likely than others to have contacted government officials. In fact, past Republican affiliation is the single strongest predictor of Tea Party support today.
What’s more, contrary to some accounts, the Tea Party is not a creature of the Great Recession. Many Americans have suffered in the last four years, but they are no more likely than anyone else to support the Tea Party. And while the public image of the Tea Party focuses on a desire to shrink government, concern over big government is hardly the only or even the most important predictor of Tea Party support among voters.
So what do Tea Partiers have in common? They are overwhelmingly white, but even compared to other white Republicans, they had a low regard for immigrants and blacks long before Barack Obama was president, and they still do.
More important, they were disproportionately social conservatives in 2006 — opposing abortion, for example — and still are today. Next to being a Republican, the strongest predictor of being a Tea Party supporter today was a desire, back in 2006, to see religion play a prominent role in politics. And Tea Partiers continue to hold these views: they seek “deeply religious” elected officials, approve of religious leaders’ engaging in politics and want religion brought into political debates. The Tea Party’s generals may say their overriding concern is a smaller government, but not their rank and file, who are more concerned about putting God in government …
Yet it is precisely this infusion of religion into politics that most Americans increasingly oppose. While over the last five years Americans have become slightly more conservative economically, they have swung even further in opposition to mingling religion and politics. It thus makes sense that the Tea Party ranks alongside the Christian Right in unpopularity.
Perhaps there’s some reason to disbelieve their data. But if not, it has important and difficult implications for the Republican Party. It suggests that, until now, Republican elites were able to channel the Tea Party into a small-government case consistent with the beliefs of many Americans, but that ultimately, the Tea Party will wants more religious conservatism in their, well, tea.
Perhaps this wouldn’t matter if Republican elites retained control of the situation, but we’re seeing the rise of new Tea Party tribunes who will appeal more directly to their base — but do so to the dismay of the average voter. These numbers suggest the overt religiosity of Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry will give them a huge advantage in the GOP primary, but force them to say things and commit to policies that leave them at a huge disadvantage in a general election.