WASHINGTON — Tea party backers fashion themselves as "we the people," but polls show the Republican Party's most conservative and energized voters are hardly your average crowd.
According to an Associated Press-GfK Poll this month, 84 percent who call themselves tea party supporters don't like how President Barack Obama is handling his job — a view shared by just 35 percent of all other adults. Tea partiers are about four times likelier than others to back repealing Obama's health care overhaul and twice as likely to favor renewing tax cuts for the highest-earning Americans.
Exit polls of voters in this month's congressional elections reveal similar gulfs. Most tea party supporters — 86 percent — want less government intrusion on people and businesses, but only 35 percent of other voters said so. Tea party backers were about five times likelier to blame Obama for the country's economic ills, three times likelier to say Obama's policies will be harmful and twice as apt to see the country on the wrong track.
These aren't subtle shadings between tea party backers and the majority of Americans, who don't support the movement; they're Grand Canyon-size chasms.
With Republicans running the House next year, the findings highlight the delicate dance facing leaders who will have to address tea party concerns without alienating moderate voters who will be crucial in 2012, when the GOP hopes to win the White House and boost its strength on Capitol Hill.
One certainty: There are too many tea party supporters for politicians to ignore, especially for Republicans. About three in 10 adults in the AP-GfK Poll call themselves tea party backers, including 60 percent of Republicans. In the exit poll in this month's election, which saw high conservative turnout, four in 10 voiced tea party support, and two of every three GOP votes came from them.
Those are impressive numbers, though leaders of the loosely organized movement sometimes seem to imply that their views enjoy an even broader consensus. Tea party supporters emblazon "We the People," the opening of the preamble to the Constitution, on banners at demonstrations and on merchandise their groups sell. And at a campaign rally last month in Orlando, Fla., tea party favorite Sarah Palin said of congressional Democratic leaders, "It's nothing personal, you just replace them with people who will do the job, who will listen to the people."
"We are ordinary Americans," said Jenny Beth Martin, a national coordinator for Tea Party Patriots, an umbrella group. "These are people who care so much they want to restore our Constitution."
GOP pollster Steve Lombardo says it will be a challenge for Republican leaders to find policies that will deliver "a two-fer for independents and more extreme elements" of the party. He and other Republicans say the answer is to focus on areas of broad agreement like curbing federal spending, taxes and deficits.
In an early nod to tea party voters, House and Senate Republicans have adopted a self-imposed ban on home-district federal projects called "earmarks," a symbol of wasteful spending.
In the AP-GfK Poll, tea party backers agree with others on the urgency to address the economy and joblessness, two of the country's top problems. But they are likelier to name taxes and the budget deficit as important issues and less interested in education and the environment.
The poll also shows sharp differences between the tea party and the seven in 10 independents who don't support the tea party, a group both parties will target in 2012. Tea party backers take a far more negative view of Obama and his agenda than those independents do and are far likelier to think favorably of the GOP and unfavorably of Democrats.
Tea partiers are likelier to be white, male, older and more affluent than everyone else, the polls show — groups that tend to be more conservative. Yet even compared with the 47 percent of conservatives who don't back the tea party, the views of conservatives who do support the movement stand out.
Among conservatives who are tea party backers, 74 percent are glad Republicans will run the House next year while Democrats retain control of the Senate and White House. Just 36 percent of conservatives who don't back the tea party agree that divided government will be good for the country, likely because of concern over gridlock. Tea party backers are also far likelier than other conservatives to like Palin, the former Alaska governor.
Democrats say the gap between the tea party and others will let them cast the GOP as extreme.
"The House and Senate Republican leadership are playing a very dangerous game by appearing to embrace proposals that many Americans consider outside the mainstream," said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who was narrowly re-elected over tea party favorite Sharron Angle.
Republicans say the hazard the tea party poses is not its views but some of the controversial candidates it backed, such as Angle and defeated GOP Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell of Delaware. Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., who had tea party backing, said this month's GOP victory showed wide support for controlling spending and taxes and creating private sector jobs.
"That is the mandate that's been given across the country, that's the voice of the American people," he said.
The AP-GfK Poll was conducted Nov. 3-8 by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Corporate Communications and involved cell and landline telephone interviews with 1,000 randomly chosen adults. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points. It included interviews with 299 tea party supporters, with a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 7.5 points.
The exit poll involved interviews with 17,504 voters, including Election Day voters and phone interviews with people who voted early or absentee. It had an overall margin of sampling error of plus or minus 1 point.
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