ABOVE PHOTO: AUDIENCE MEMBERS cheer during the ‘Energy Independence Day Tea Party’ rally on Independence Mall in Philadelphia, on July 4, 2011.
(AP Photo/Joseph Kaczmarek)
The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements are defining the terms of debate for the upcoming presidential election. The 2012 election could very well turn on which movement generates a more compelling narrative that encourages enthusiasm among partisans and policy appeal to independent voters. Two unresolved questions might be most meaningful in the coming months.
First, will the Tea Party be as effective in 2012 as it was in 2010 in mobilizing Republicans, attracting independents, and defining the terms of debate? Two, will the Occupy movement develop an agenda that mobilizes Democrats and attracts independents, or degenerate into chaos? Nowhere will these questions be more important than in the battleground states. Among these pivotal states, Pennsylvania, with its 20 electoral votes, provides some indication of the strength and direction of both movements.
Most Pennsylvania voters have heard of both the Tea Party (73 percent) and Occupy (82 percent) movements, but the Occupy movement currently receives more support (49 percent) than the Tea Party (39 percent). It is possible that the recent emergence of the Occupy movement and its lack of clear policy goals make it more appealing than the Tea Party. The latest Franklin and Marshall College Poll in Pennsylvania shows that the Tea Party receives about the same amount of support now as it did in early 2010, but opposition to the movement has climbed from about one-third (29 percent) to half (48 percent) in the same time period as the Tea Party became increasingly identified with Republicans.
But simple proportions overstate somewhat the appeal of both movements; combining responses to questions about awareness and support for both movements produces better information about who is driving them (supporting details that define each group and also display group support by demographic and political variables can be found here).
At the moment, more Pennsylvania voters are Occupy supporters (32 percent) than are Tea Party supporters (20 percent). There are those who support both movements (8 percent), those who oppose both movements (7 percent), those who are unaware of both movements (19 percent), and those who are opposed to one movement (15 percent) without having an opinion about the other. This finding is incredibly important and deserves repeating: half of the state’s voters do not support either movement.
There are ample demographic and political differences between these groups. Occupy supporters are more urban, younger, more educated, less white, more affluent, and more male. Surprisingly, perhaps, about the same proportion of white, working-class voters supports each movement.
Politically, Republicans and conservatives are much more likely to support the Tea Party while Democrats and liberals are much more likely to support the Occupy movement. What is most consequential is that independent and moderate voters are more inclined to support the Occupy movement than the Tea Party movement.
The movements are most sharply defined by their political attitudes. Tea Party supporters are strongly critical of the president’s performance and are inclined to support his Republican opponents in pre-election polls. Occupy supporters are much more supportive of the President’s performance and are much more inclined to support him than his Republican opponents.
What does this explain, at least about these political movements in Pennsylvania? There is no strong evidence that the Tea Party represents anything more than activated conservative, Republican partisans at this time. The increasingly negative perceptions of the Tea Party suggest that it may be unable to generate the enthusiasm among voters that it did in 2010. The 2010 gubernatorial election in Pennsylvania provides some evidence about the changes that have taken place: 40 percent of voters supported the Tea Party at that time and more than two in three independents supported or were neutral about the movement. The appeal of the Tea Party to independent voters has declined.
The Occupy movement, on the other hand, does appear to have more support among moderate and independent voters which makes it seem less overtly partisan, although much of its support comes from liberal, Democratic partisans. Here we are back to the same question: can the Occupy movement continue to appeal to moderate and independent voters? If so, the Occupy movement has the potential to provide the President with a narrative and an energy that supports and invigorates his campaign as the Tea Party did for Republicans during the 2010 elections.