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Tuesday, 13 July 2010 18:30

TEA Party catches on, but impact on election still hard to gauge

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By Christopher A. Cooper and H. Gibbs Knotts

Beginning in 2009 with a series of protests focusing on what participants viewed as excessive government taxation, the TEA Party movement has grown into one of the most prominent political stories of the past few years. Because it is a relatively recent movement and in most places it is still impossible to register with the Board of Elections as a member of the TEA Party, hard data on TEA Party supporters are difficult to come by.

The New York Times produced one of the only surveys focusing on the TEA Party. It found that that 18 percent of Americans self-identified as TEA Party “supporters” and that these supporters tended to be white, educated, fairly well-off, ideologically conservative, and members of the Republican Party. Not surprisingly, the Times survey also found that TEAPartiers are distrustful of the federal government.

Although these findings are illustrative of the country as a whole, what about the situation in Jackson County? To learn more about the degree of TEA Party support among locals, Western Carolina University’s Public Policy Institute and The Smoky Mountain News teamed up to poll about 600 registered voters in Jackson County on issues related to the TEA Party, as well as other political issues.

The survey data reveal that Jackson County registered voters are evenly split, with 42 percent holding a favorable view of the TEA Party, 40 percent holding an unfavorable view and the remaining 18 percent having no opinion. Although the question’s wording is different than that of the New York Times poll, it does appear that the TEA Party has more support here than in the nation as a whole.

Digging a little deeper into the data reveals that TEA Party supporters in Jackson County are more likely to be male, conservative and registered as Republican than those who do not support the TEA Party.  Given the national results, none of this is terribly surprising.

Considerably more surprising, however, is the influence of education. Recall that in the national sample, TEA Party supporters were more educated than the population at large. In the Jackson County sample, however, those with positive opinions towards the TEA Party have slightly less education than their counterparts.

The Jackson County poll also presents an opportunity to determine how TEA Party supporters feel about local as well as national government. Not surprisingly, TEA Party supporters do not hold a positive view off the federal government. What is more surprising is the size of this effect. A whopping 95 percent of TEA Party supporters hold an unfavorable opinion of the federal government, but among those with unfavorable opinions of the TEA Party only 36 percent hold an unfavorable opinion of the federal government.”

TEA Party supporters aren’t big fans of the Jackson County government, either, but the effect here is much smaller.

Approximately 70 percent of TEA Party supporters disapprove of Jackson County government, compared to 47 percent among those who do not support the TEA Party. Clearly the TEA Party movement, at least here in Jackson County, is much more dissatisfied with federal than local government.

Anyone who walked through the county on Tax Day knows that the TEA Party has some backing in Jackson County, and this polling information can tell us a little bit more about the nature and extent of this support. What our data cannot tell us, of course, is what the exact effect will be on the upcoming elections. The TEA Party has considerable support here in Jackson County, but a true understanding of the group’s electoral impact will have to wait until November.

Christopher A. Cooper and H. Gibbs Knotts are associate professors of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University, where Knotts also serves as department head and Cooper directs the Public Policy Institute.

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