The Tea Party movement clearly played a role in rejuvenating the Republican Party in 2010, helping the GOP take control of the House and make gains in the Senate. Tea Party supporters made up 41% of the electorate on Nov. 2, and 86% of them voted for Republican House candidates, according to exit polls. But the precise nature of the Tea Party has been less clear. Is it solely a movement to reduce the size of government and cut taxes, as its name – some people refer to it as the Taxed Enough Already party – implies? Or do its supporters share a broader set of conservative positions on social as well as economic issues? Does the movement draw support across the religious spectrum? Or has the religious right “taken over” the Tea Party, as some commentators have suggested? 1
A new analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life finds that Tea Party supporters tend to have conservative opinions not just about economic matters, but also about social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. In addition, they are much more likely than registered voters as a whole to say that their religion is the most important factor in determining their opinions on these social issues.2 And they draw disproportionate support from the ranks of white evangelical Protestants.
The analysis shows that most people who agree with the religious right also support the Tea Party. But support for the Tea Party is not synonymous with support for the religious right. An August 2010 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that nearly half of Tea Party supporters (46%) had not heard of or did not have an opinion about “the conservative Christian movement sometimes known as the religious right”; 42% said they agree with the conservative Christian movement and roughly one-in-ten (11%) said they disagree.3 More generally, the August poll found greater familiarity with and support for the Tea Party movement (86% of registered voters had heard at least a little about it at the time and 27% expressed agreement with it) than for the conservative Christian movement (64% had heard of it and 16% expressed support for it).
In addition to the August poll, this analysis draws on other Pew Research Center polling from September 2010 through February 2011. The polls included a variety of questions about the Tea Party, social and economic issues, and the role of religion in forming people’s opinions on these issues. The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press has additional resources
Conservative and Critical of Government
As previously reported by the Pew Research Center, the Tea Party is much more Republican and conservative than the public as a whole. Indeed, Tea Party supporters are more conservative on economic issues and the size of government than either Republicans in general or all registered voters.4 According to a September 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center, almost nine-in-ten registered voters who agree with the Tea Party (88%) prefer a smaller government with fewer services, compared with 80% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents and 56% of all registered voters.
In the same survey, fully 87% of Tea Party supporters said government is almost always wasteful, 8 points more than Republicans overall (79%) and 26 points more than all registered voters (61%). And while more than half of registered voters (54%) said that corporations make too much money, Tea Party supporters were inclined to see corporations as making a fair and reasonable amount of profit. Indeed, Tea Party supporters took this position by a 2-1 margin (62% fair profit vs. 30% too much profit). A somewhat smaller percentage of all Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (55%) said corporations make a fair and reasonable profit.
Conservative on Social Issues, Too
In addition to adopting a conservative approach to the economy, Tea Party supporters also tend to take socially conservative positions on abortion and same-sex marriage. While registered voters as a whole are closely divided on same-sex marriage (42% in favor, 49% opposed), Tea Party supporters oppose it by more than 2-to-1 (64% opposed, 26% in favor). Similarly, almost six-in-ten (59%) of those who agree with the Tea Party say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, 17 percentage points higher than among all registered voters. Tea Party supporters closely resemble Republican voters as a whole on these issues.
On immigration, Tea Party supporters are 20 percentage points more likely than registered voters overall to say better border security is the most important priority in dealing with illegal immigration (51% vs. 31%). About half as many Tea Party supporters (10%) as registered voters on the whole (22%) see the establishment of a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants as the top priority.
Tea Party backers also heavily favor the rights of gun owners. The September survey found that those who agree with the Tea Party favor protecting gun rights over controlling gun ownership by more than 4-to-1 (78% vs. 18%). Registered voters overall divide almost evenly on this issue (51% give priority to gun rights, 45% give priority to gun control). A January 2011 survey, conducted by the Pew Research Center in the wake of the Tucson shootings, showed no significant change in public views on the issue of gun control and gun rights.
Influence of Religion
According to an August 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Tea Party supporters are much more likely than the public overall to cite “religious beliefs” as the biggest influence on their views of same-sex marriage and abortion. Roughly half of Tea Party backers said their religious beliefs are the most important influence on their views of gay marriage (53%) and abortion (46%). Furthermore, Tea Party supporters who cited religion as a top factor were overwhelmingly opposed to same-sex marriage and legal abortion. By contrast, 37% of registered voters overall cited their religious beliefs as the most important influence on their views of same-sex marriage and 28% cited religion as the primary influence on their views of abortion.
Strong Support from Evangelicals
Support for the Tea Party varies dramatically across religious groups. Surveys from November 2010 through February 2011 show that white evangelical Protestants are roughly five times as likely to agree with the movement as to disagree with it (44% vs. 8%), though substantial numbers of white evangelicals either have no opinion or have not heard of the movement (48%). Three-in-ten or more of white Catholics (33%) and white mainline Protestants (30%) also agree with the Tea Party, but among these two groups at least one-in-five people disagrees with the movement.
Among Jews, the religiously unaffiliated and black Protestants, however, there is more opposition than support for the Tea Party. Nearly half of Jews (49%) say they disagree with the Tea Party movement, compared with 15% who agree with it. Among the unaffiliated, more than four-in-ten (42%) disagree with the movement while 15% agree with it. About two-thirds of atheists and agnostics (67%) disagree with the movement. Most black Protestants polled (56%) say they have not heard of the Tea Party or have no opinion about it. But among black Protestants who offer an opinion, those who disagree with the movement outnumber those who agree with it by more than 5-to-1 (37% disagree vs. 7% agree).
The Tea Party and the Conservative Christian Movement
Americans who support the conservative Christian movement, sometimes known as the religious right, also overwhelmingly support the Tea Party. In the Pew Research Center’s August 2010 poll, 69% of registered voters who agreed with the religious right also said they agreed with the Tea Party. Moreover, both the religious right and the Tea Party count a higher percentage of white evangelical Protestants in their ranks (45% among the religious right, 34% among the Tea Party and 22% among all registered voters in the August 2010 survey). Religiously unaffiliated people are less common among Tea Party or religious right supporters than among the public at-large (3% among the religious right, 10% among the Tea Party and 15% among all registered voters in the August poll).
While most people who agree with the conservative Christian movement support the Tea Party, many people who support the Tea Party are unfamiliar with or uncertain about the religious right. In the August poll, almost half of Tea Party supporters said they had not heard of or did not have an opinion on the conservative Christian movement (46%). Among those who did offer an opinion, however, Tea Party supporters agreed with the religious right by a roughly 4-1 margin (42% agreed with the religious right, 11% disagreed).
Overall, the Tea Party appears to be more widely known and to garner broader support than the religious right. The August survey found that 86% of registered voters had heard of the Tea Party, compared with 64% who had heard of the conservative Christian movement; among Republican and Republican-leaning voters, 91% had heard of the Tea Party compared with 68% who were familiar with the conservative Christian movement. About half of Republican and Republican leaning registered voters (51%) agreed with the Tea Party in the August poll, as did more than a quarter (27%) of all registered voters. By contrast, about three-in-ten Republican and Republican leaning voters (31%) said they agreed with the conservative Christian movement, as did one-in-six registered voters overall (16%).
The Pew Forum will continue to monitor the role of religion in politics, social issues, candidates and political parties throughout the 2011-12 primary and general election cycle. Please visit Religion & Politics 2012 to read our latest reports.
This analysis was written by Scott Clement, survey research analyst at the Pew Forum, and John C. Green, senior research adviser to the Pew Forum and professor of political science at the University of Akron.
1 See, for example, “Is the Religious Right Taking Over the Tea Party?” Huffington Post, Oct. 27, 2010. Also, “Tea Party Closely Linked to Religious Right, Poll Finds,” ABC News, Oct. 5, 2010. (return to text)
2 All analyses in this report are based on registered voters. (return to text)
3 Respondents were asked “How much, if anything, have you heard about the conservative Christian movement sometimes known as the religious right? Have you heard a lot, a little, or nothing at all?” Those who said they had heard at least a little were then asked “In general, do you strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree with the conservative Christian movement, or don’t you have an opinion either way?” (return to text)
4 Throughout this analysis, Tea Party supporters are defined as those who say they “strongly agree” or “agree” with the Tea Party movement. Most, but not all, Tea Party supporters identify with or lean toward the Republican Party. In a February 2011 Pew Research Center poll, for example, 82% of registered voters who agree with the Tea Party say they identify with or lean toward the Republican Party. (return to text)
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