A new national survey portrays the tea party movement as largely Ross Perot-style libertarians, who are almost as unhappy with Republicans as they are with Democrats.
The polling runs counter to popular perceptions of tea partiers as either a wing of the Republican Party or as people from the cultural fringes who are mad at almost everything.
The man who officially registered the "Tea Party" in Florida last year isn't surprised. He's used to being misunderstood. "I got an e-mail from a lady who thought the tea party movement should be about banning the sale of tilapia," said Orlando lawyer Fred O'Neal.
The polling shows a snapshot of middle America, baby boomer vintage. Most tea partiers are married white males. Only 4 percent are African-American. They tend to be older than 45 and earn a middle income. They live in the suburbs. They watch Fox News; one in four reads a local newspaper. Their mantra: Reduce the deficit.
The survey finds an almost exclusive focus on reducing the size of government. It includes a substantial representation of Democrats, some of whom label themselves liberal, and many independents. It shows both parties will struggle to win their votes.
"It's a foolish politician who would brand tea party-ites as a monolithic, far-right bag of extremists," said Darryl Paulson, professor of government and Florida politics for the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. "He or she would soon be an ex-politician."
The biggest finding, said David Winston, president of the polling firm, is that tea partiers agree with mainstream America that jobs and the economy are the nation's top concern.
Pessimism with today's political leadership is rampant among them. Only 15 percent believe the country is headed in the right direction.
Those results came out of three national surveys of 1,000 registered voters by a Washington polling company called the Winston Group. The polls were done between December 2009 and February 2010.
People were asked if they considered themselves part of the tea party movement. Overall, 17 percent of those called said they did. Of that group, 57 percent called themselves Republicans; 28 percent said they were independents; 13 percent were Democrats.
Two-thirds claimed to be conservatives, 26 percent were moderates, and 8 percent called themselves liberal.
The survey sounds on the mark to O'Neal. "The tea party movement gets some people who are attracted by the energy and excitement and some others who are just angry at life. But the core are people who are against bigger government and higher taxes."
That independents and Democrats make up four of every 10 tea partiers doesn't surprise him.
"There are two things about the Republican Party we don't like," he said. "They identify with big business. And the corporate bailouts started with George Bush and Henry Paulson (Bush's treasury secretary)."
Darryl Paulson, the USF professor, said the "last straw" for tea partiers was Bush's prescription drug entitlement with no funding source.
The movement, all agree, is not attracting many social conservatives. "We're not seeing right-to-lifers or Christian fundamentalists," O'Neal said. "We're seeing a lot of libertarians."
Texas millionaire Ross Perot won almost 20 million votes in the 1992 presidential election with a libertarian message before his popularity faded. He appealed to voters who believed neither party cared about their financial concerns. Winston sees the tea party as the legacy of Perot.
He said tea partiers may be unhappy with the Republican Party, but believe the GOP is more likely to shrink government than Democrats.
Still, "Republicans haven't made the sale yet."
What turns on tea partiers:
• Reducing the deficit.
• Reducing unemployment to 5 percent.
• Tax cuts for small businesses.
What turns them off:
• Increased government spending.
• Democrats in Congress.
• President Obama.
John Barry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2258.