Support for tea party goals extends far beyond the ranks of those who formally align themselves with the grass-roots movement.
That's the message of a new Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll taken this month as Americans were casting ballots in a shakeup election.
In the survey of American adults, a majority says Congress should give a high priority to "cutting the deficit by cutting spending," a core objective of the tea party movement. By contrast, support for government policies designed to stimulate the economy ranks near the bottom of public prioritites, alongside the idea of raising taxes to help close the federal deficit.
Most Americans support extending the Bush tax cuts temporarily (even for high-income taxpayers), the poll found, although extending the cuts permanently lacked majority support.
"Many people don't explicitly identify with the tea party, but they sympathize with the point of view," says pollster Raghavan Mayur, president of TechnoMetrica Market Intelligence, which conducts the monthly poll. When it comes to growing government debt, "people are very sensitive."
Support for cuts
Even among Democrats, more Americans favor federal spending cuts (34 percent) than federal stimulus spending (21 percent), which was a centerpiece of President Obama's economic policy in 2009.
This doesn't mean that most Americans have embraced a minimalist approach to government, or that tea party emblem Rand Paul (coming to Washington to represent Kentucky in the Senate) would have an easy time wresting the presidency from Mr. Obama in a national campaign.
In fact, the Monitor/TIPP poll finds, Americans generally do not have a favorable view of the tea party. While 36 percent of those polled gave the tea party a favorable rating (from 6 to 10, with 10 being "very favorable"), 54 percent gave unfavorable ratings of 1 to 5. About 10 percent were unsure.
But Americans' views on government spending have grown more conservative this year, Mr. Mayur says. One reason is that Americans see, in Europe, signs of the difficulties that arise for nations that fail to tame fast-rising public debt.
Another factor: The economy is no longer in the kind of crisis that existed when the president's Recovery Act passed in 2009. As a result, more stimulus spending doesn't feel urgent. And, rightly or wrongly, the still-high unemployment rate has raised doubts about how effective stimulus programs are.
In the Monitor/TIPP poll, 912 adults from across the country were asked to rate 14 potential priorities for Congress on a scale from 1 (very low) to 10 (very high).
Cutting federal spending, to reduce the deficit, was the only policy move that had garnered a score of 9 or higher from a majority of the electorate.
Taxes aren't the answer
And if the deficit is a big worry, Americans haven't become fond of tax hikes as part of the fix. Raising taxes to reduce the deficit, in fact, ranked at the bottom of the priority list – slighly below the idea of new stimulus spending.
A majority of those polled gave a fairly strong priority – a ranking of 7 or higher – to some other possible moves by Congress:
- Beefing up homeland security to defend against terrorism (strong priority for 68 percent of respondents).
- Securing the border to reduce the flow of illegal immigrants (63 percent of respondents).
- Repealing or significantly revising the recently passed health-care legislation (61 percent).
- Cutting the deficit by getting US forces out of Afghanistan on schedule next summer (60 percent).
- Requiring banks to rewrite mortgages for people who owe more than their homes are worth, to reduce foreclosures (54 percent).
Views on mortgages aside (many in the tea party don't support more federal intervention on foreclosures), a theme that emerges in the poll is skepticism of big government and concern for one's own pocketbook.
At the same time, Americans aren't rallying behind the interests of big business. Two moves that failed to win strong support in the poll, for example, are cutting corporate taxes and backing away from new environmental regulations.
Legislation to allow many illegal immigrants to gain legal status was also lower down on the priority list.