Is Half the Tea Party Libertarian?


As David Kirby and I found in our analysis of Tea Party supporters at the Virginia Tea Party Convention in 2010, and published in Politico, the Tea Party is not one homogenous blob of ideologues. Many political scientists and political pundits who have not examined the data wrongly conclude the Tea Party is the GOP's base of extreme fiscal and social conservatives. Instead, examination of nationwide survey data reveals the Tea Party has at least two major groups: one libertarian leaning and the other socially conservative. These two groups agree on most things economic, but disagree when it comes to social and cultural issues. 

The recent Reason-Rupe poll also finds two groups among those who self-identify as supporters of the Tea Party, with 41 percent leaning-libertarian and 59 percent socially conservative. Tea Partiers generally agree on economic issues and abstract role of government questions. However, a split emerges on whether government has a role in promoting traditional values in society or if the government should not promote any particular set of values.

There are demographic differences between the two groups, with the libertarian-leaners less likely to attend religious services, more likely to come from the Northeast, with slightly higher educational attainment in some cases, and younger. 

Although Tea Partiers overall are de-branded Republicans, libertarian-leaning Tea Partiers are even more so. The plurality response to partisan identification is 44 percent "Independent" compared to 39 percent "Republican." When independents are asked which way they lean, most Tea Partiers lean Republican. Consequently, 39 percent of libertarian-leaning Tea Partiers are Republican and 29 percent lean Republican; in contrast, 57 percent of socially conservative Tea Partiers are Republican and 20 percent lean Republican.

Libertarian-leaners voiced more intense support for allowing workers the choice to opt out of Social Security and Medicare. They are also more likely to favor raising the retirement age than socially conservative Tea Partiers. They are less confident in the department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They are also more likely to believe "misguided" regulations rather than the "lack of" regulations led to the troubled housing market.

Libertarian-leaners are much more likely to support a presidential candidate who is fiscally conservative and socially liberal. They are also more likely to consider voting for a third party candidate.