Results of a poll of 1,600 Hoosiers conducted by Survey USA for the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics appear to bear McClendon out. Forty-eight percent said they view the tea party movement favorably; 26 percent view it unfavorably, 17 percent are neutral and 9 percent said they have no opinion at all. That margin exists even though 47 percent said they don't personally identify with the movement, compared to 39 percent who do and 15 percent who aren't sure. Not all responses add up to 100 percent because some figures have been rounded, according to Downs Center Director Andy Downs.
Hoosiers' embrace of the tea party is echoed in questions asked exclusively for The News-Sentinel and NewsChannel 15. When asked about the movement's impact, 58 percent said it is good for the country, 23 percent said it is damaging and 19 percent said it makes no difference.
But even though tea party participants are generally perceived as politically conservative and religiously devout – a profile supported by the polling – the survey also cautions Republicans against taking the movement's support for granted. While 23 percent said they believe tea party supporters are mostly Republicans unhappy with the GOP, 69 percent defined supporters as Americans who have become disenchanted with both major parties. Seven percent weren't sure.
“I think that's true, although they're mostly unhappy with Democrats right now,” said Sharon Kuhn, founder of the Liberty Coalition, adding that the group's 900 members are among thousands of tea-party activists in Allen County. Kuhn said the pro-tea-party results are especially positive “considering that, three years ago, not that many people were thinking about our nation as the Founders saw it.
“Will that translate into votes (Tuesday)? That's a good question. But when you think your freedom is threatened, you should be angry.”
McClendon said he believes most of the people who believe the tea party is a negative force have been misled by media reports. “My friends tell me the movement is ‘crazy,' but when I ask why, they can't give me a reason except, ‘that's what I read or heard.'”
But the anger mentioned by McClendon and Kuhn may also help explain why so many Americans react negatively to the movement, according to local NAACP President Bill McGill.
“I'm not surprised by the results. This is a pretty conservative state. But if they would bring in more minorities, they would not be seen as an isolationist organization. And if they would denounce their more extreme elements, I would be pleased,” he said.
Although the African-American McClendon has denounced assertions of racism in the tea party, the national NAACP this month released a report citing specific examples of alleged racism in the mostly white movement. The civil-rights group said its previous expressions of concern had resulted in angry phone calls and even death threats, but caused the movement to purge some participants. “These are welcome first steps … (But) while many of the movement's leaders are motivated by common conservative budget and governance concerns, for too long they have tolerated others who espouse racism and xenophobia,” the report stated.
Even so, it concluded, “the majority of tea party supporters are sincere, principled people of good will.”
They tend to share other traits as well, according to the survey – including regular worship attendance.
Of the people who told pollsters they worship weekly, 45 percent said they identify with the party compared to 42 percent who don't. But support for the movement generally wanes – and opposition grows – as worship becomes less frequent. Among people who almost never worship, however, just 33 percent identify with the tea party, while 51 percent do not.
Downs said pollsters did not try to identify the religions of the people surveyed, believing frequency of worship – not denomination – would more closely reflect and predict attitudes toward the movement.
Downs said the poll did not track respondents by race because the sample of minorities likely would have been too small to be statistically reliable. Other trends did emerge, however, among people who do and do not identify with the movement.
Men tend to embrace that identity more than women, 43 percent to 34 percent. Age, however, is an imperfect predictor, with the highest identification (42 percent) seen in the 35-49 age bracket, while the over-50 group was tied for the lowest identification rate (36 percent).
And although just 33 percent of people who attended grad school identify with the movement (57 percent do not), the education gap narrows in other groups. Among college graduates, for example, 41 percent identify with the movement and 44 percent do not. Among high school graduates, 40 percent do and 42 percent do not.
And despite the question indicating that tea party members identify themselves as Americans skeptical of both parties, support for the movement is much higher among Republicans. Among strong Democrats, just 6 percent identify with the movement compared to 68 percent among strong Republicans.
Downs, however, noted that the movement is also supported by 45 percent of independents and viewed unfavorably by just 18 percent – a margin that has barely changed for several months.
The challenge now, Kuhn said, is to build that support.
“I don't like ‘tea party,' ” Kuhn said. “I prefer to call it the ‘conservative restoration movement.' And the work has just begun. If the people stay connected to their representatives, their representatives will stay connected to them. But if the people get lazy … they can blame only themselves.”
More InformationHow the poll was conducted
These results are from a survey of 1,600 people statewide who have voted or who are likely to vote. Four hundred of those surveyed live in the 3rd Congressional District. The poll was conducted by SurveyUSA for the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics. The News-Sentinel and NewsChannel 15 are partners in the poll. The poll, conducted Oct. 21 through Monday, has a statewide margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percent and a margin of error at plus or minus 5 percent in questions pertaining to the 3rd Congressional District.