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Tea Party Tally

Where did the tea party go? Into the trenches

National polls show tea party support withering among some Americans, but don't count the 'taxed enough already' crowd out just yet. They are crafting a from-the-ground-up strategy for 2012.

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The fundamentals of political activism have helped the tea party forge a pragmatic "synthesis" with the Republican Party, according to political scientist Dan Woodard of Clemson University, in South Carolina. (It's a shaky alliance that may eventually require a major intraparty reckoning if Republicans take over either the Senate or White House, or both, after next year's elections.)

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But even with an improved ground game, the tea party no longer has the element of surprise, which some political experts say played a role in their success in the 2010 elections.

There are other problems. National polls indicate growing disagreement with the tea party. A November Pew poll showed that 27 percent of people disagree and 20 percent agree with the tea party – a near-flip from a year earlier, when 27 percent agreed and 22 percent disagreed.

"The Tea Party still don't seem to be in a majority position in the electorate," James Henson, a politics professor at the University of Texas in Austin, told Reuters recently. "The question is whether there will be uneven voter mobilization in the primaries. Will moderate Republicans show up in greater numbers? There is a lot of cleavage within the Republican Party at the national level, but the Tea Party may meet more resistance this time."

But detailed state polls tell a more nuanced story of tea party support.

A November poll by Clemson University showed that while only 12 percent of South Carolinians said they had attended tea party events, 38 percent of respondents said they generally support its principles of lower taxes, less regulation, and an end to deficit spending. Meanwhile, a mere 4 percent said they opposed the tea party. That meant that more than 50 percent showed at least some implicit sympathy, just by virtue of not being actively against the tea party, says Mr. Woodard at Clemson.

Among Republicans, the view from the precinct strategy is even rosier for the tea party, with two-thirds of Georgia Republicans, for example, agreeing with the "general views" of the tea party movement, according to a November poll by the Atlanta-based firm InsiderAdvantage.

"If you look at the 38 percent support the tea party gets [from the Clemson poll], and the fact that South Carolina voters say federal spending is their top concern, you can kind of put the pieces of the puzzle together to see that they're working hand in glove with the electorate," says Woodard. "Whatever they're saying, the electorate is echoing as well."

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