The Tea Party: We Are the 22 Percent

There are lots of important percentages in American politics, from the 99 percent to the 47 percent, but this week's most important is the 22 percent. That's the portion of Americans who identify with the tea-party movement according to a new Gallup survey released Thursday. That's a record low, down 10 percentage points from a peak of 32 percent in 2010. But that doesn't mean the conservative movement's influence inside Congress has waned.

If you're struggling to understand why Republicans seem wedded to a confrontation over Obamacare that could lead to a government shutdown or debt default, or why Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas says the American people are with him, despite the fact that most Americans say the GOP should just accept the fact that Obamacare is law of the land, or that voters oppose shutting down the government over the law by a three-to-one margin, look no further than the 22 percent. Thanks to gerrymandering, many Republicans are more worried about a primary challenge than losing in a general election—until that changes, the 22 percent will command outsize importance relative to their size.

Nothing has made that more clear than the fight over government funding this week. While most Americans—and even most Republicans, in some polls—oppose the confrontation strategy, the 22 percent can't get enough of it. Take a Pew survey from this week, which asked respondents if lawmakers should "stand by their principles, even if the government shuts down," or "compromise, even on a budget you disagree with." Overall, a clear majority—57 percent of Americans—said compromise. But among tea-party-leaning Republicans, 71 percent said lawmakers should stand on principle. Just 20 percent of the tea partiers want legislators to compromise.

But here's the most revealing bit: Non-tea-party Republicans favored compromise by a margin of 54 percent to 38 percent. In other words, Cruz isn't just at odds with most Americans, he's at odds with most Republicans. 

A CNBC poll released Monday found the same split. While a majority of Republicans support defunding Obamacare, a near-majority oppose threatening a government shutdown over the issue 48 percent to 36 percent. Not surprisingly, independents and Democrats oppose the strategy by far-larger margins. In fact, the only demographic unit that favored the confrontation strategy is those who identify with the tea party; they supported the shutdown approach by a 54 percent majority.

And if it seems crazy that Republicans would demand a lengthy list of conservative wish-list items in return for raising the debt ceiling, as they did Thursday, you can thank the 22 percent for that as well. As The Washington Post's Greg Sargent pointed out, parsing data from his paper's recent poll, even though most Republicans agree that not raising the debt limit would cause "serious economic harm," a majority—53 percent to 32 percent—say Congress should still forgo raising it, despite the danger.

And as Gallup found, the gap between Republicans and the tea party may be widening. The pollster's 2010 survey on the movement found that 65 percent of Republicans said they supported the tea party. But Thursday's survey found that that number has dropped nearly 30 points, with just 38 percent of Republicans now saying they support the tea party. And there isn't much love in the other direction, as just 55 percent of tea partiers have a favorable view of the Republican Party.

This helps explain why Cruz took to Rush Limbaugh's airwaves just minutes after ending his Senate floor speech to slam his GOP colleagues as cowardly defeatists. And it helps explain which "American people" Ted Cruz is listening to when he says that he's heeding the will of the people. He's listening to the 22 percent, not the 59 percent who say he shouldn't shut down the government to defund Obamacare.