What's more, about 40 percent of tea party sympathizers say they would not attend a tea party event, meaning they are essentially "closet admirers" of the small-government movement, says TIPP pollster Raghavan Mayur.
"The general party line says the tea party is fringe, but I think most of the public hasn't bought that point of view ... and sees the tea party movement in a positive to neutral light," says Mr. Mayur, president of TechnoMetrica Market Intelligence in Ramsey, N.J., who last weekend oversaw the poll of 908 American adults. "The overarching message here is that Democrats have been in denial about the tea party [phenomenon] … and I think it's coming back to haunt them."
But the loosely organized "taxed enough already" movement, which has now claimed 18 primary and special election victories in support of mostly conservative Republican candidates, remains a polarizing force, with 41 percent of Americans viewing it unfavorably. In March, a Gallup poll showed 37 percent of Americans saw the movement in a favorable light versus 40 percent who didn't, but that poll used a different question and can't be directly compared with the Monitor/TIPP poll.
Debate has raged for months over whether the 18-month-old tea party movement would help or hurt the Republican Party in the midterm elections. In Tuesday's GOP primaries, tea-party-backed candidate Christine O'Donnell, an aspiring US senator from Delaware, bested longtime Rep. Mike Castle in a come-from-behind victory. Mr. Castle had been favored to flip Vice President Joe Biden's former seat to the Republican column, but Ms. O'Donnell's success could give her Democratic rival in the general election, Chris Coons, a fresh start.
"If Mike Castle isn't welcome in the Delaware Republican Party, the GOP has just hung out a sign that says moderates need not apply," said Dan Pfeiffer, White House communications chief, in a statement.
It's not the first time Democratic officials have sought to link the Republican Party – and Republican candidates – with the tea party, with the expectation that connection would drive moderate and independent voters from GOP candidates.
And it makes a certain amount of sense, given the tea party's high unfavorability ratings in the polls. But by linking the GOP and the tea party, the Democrats are also taking on activists who helped tea-party-style candidates win a string of victories, including key GOP Senate primaries in Utah, Kentucky, Nevada, Alaska, and South Carolina, as well as Tuesday's upset victory by O'Donnell in Delaware, which sparked the conservative Daily Caller to exclaim: "It’s official: the Tea Party takeover of the Republican Party is in full effect."
"[Tea partyers] are, by and large, ... more active and politically engaged than people who don't support the tea party," says pollster Christopher Parker at the University of Washington. "So this is no mirage; it's the real deal."
Indeed, to some the movement gives voice to the general sense of disappointment and anger over the lackluster economy and Washington's approach to reviving it.
As for the GOP-tea party bond? Parker's recent analysis shows that the two are not ideological twins. Instead, he says, "tea party ideas are at the margins of conservative political discourse" on, for example, conspiratorial themes such as whether President Obama is a socialist. Moreover, a segment of the tea party can, in fact, be tracked back to reactionary – as well as xenophobic and even racist – citizen movements through American history, he says.
Tea party supporters, however, say that the TIPP poll's finding of "closet admirers" shows that what many Americans find attractive or intriguing about the movement is its focus on reducing taxes and the size of government.
"What unites the movement is this commitment to getting government under control," says Adam Brandon, a spokesman for FreedomWorks in Washington, a player in the tea party arena. "It's a reflection of a change in America where there's a major shift to decentralization, and where the two parties are losing grip on the two-party system."
Not surprising, among respondents who have low favorability toward the tea party, 73 percent want Democrats to retain control of Congress. On the flip side, among respondents who see the tea party very favorably, 87 percent want Republicans to win in November. More interesting, for those who view the tea party with moderate favorability (ranking it a 5 or a 6 on a 10-point scale), 70 percent want to see GOP control of Congress, according to the TIPP/Monitor poll.
University of Wisconsin political scientist Charles Franklin, who co-founded the website pollster.com, says the tea party movement, if successful in November, could force a congressional standoff, especially in the Senate.
"The tea party doesn't like to hear it, but it will be hard, given the rhetoric of tea party members, to reconcile themselves to the reality of keeping the federal government going [where they'll risk] being seen as a bunch of sellouts," he says. "Or do we have a dramatic revolution in government, if they succeed?"
The Monitor/TIPP poll was conducted Sept. 9-12 and has a 3.3. percent margin of error.