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How Similar Are Tea Party and Perot Movements?

Here at 538 we have discussed the possibility that the tea partiers are a residual Ron Paul movement. Or that they are Glenn Beck devotees. It’s fair to say both explanations are partially but incompletely true. But what about tea partiers as political descendants of the Ross Perot movement?

On Sunday, two columnists in the Washington Post, Dan Balz and Robert McCartney, both alluded to this potential connection. I’m not sure if this is coincidence or they were sharing thoughts. Balz’ column was dedicated almost exclusively to this idea. After setting forth some key similarities and differences, Balz writes: “The biggest and most important difference, however, is the ideological makeup of the two groups. Despite the same strong anti-government sentiment and focus on the federal budget deficit, as the tea party activists today, the Perot voters were far less conservative.” McCartney only alludes to the Perot movement in the final graph of his column, where he also notes that the tea partiers’ worries about the deficit is “reminiscient of” Perotistas, but with a splash of Abbie Hoffman-like theatrics.

Ok, so what to make of this? To answer this question, my mind immediately turned to my colleague Ron Rapoport of William & Mary.

Rapoport and co-author Walter Stone have tracked Perot voters for years, and their book, Three’s a Crowd, is considered the authoritative treatment of that movement, its lasting impact and its residual following. So I emailed Rapoport and asked one simple question, “How closely does the tea party movement align with the Perot movement?”

Comparing the data he has from callers to Perot’s 1-800 number with results from the recent New York Times survey of tea partiers, Rapoport responded:

The Perot movement is inherently different. It was formed around a candidate during a presidential election campaign. This explains the support by Perot supporters for a third party which tea partiers at present lack. The major difference is that Perot movement was a total rejection of both parties, while the tea party movement is a total rejection of only one party–the Democrats.

Whereas only 5% of tea party supporters said that they usually or always voted Democratic, fully one-thrid of Perot supporters had voted for Walter Mondale in 1984 and slightly more had voted for Michael Dukakis in 1988.

In the New York Times survey, 54% of tea partiers rated the Republican Party favorably. Only 17% of Perot callers rated either party as “above average” or “outstanding” and 43% rated both parties as “below average,” or “poor” with 8% rating the Republicans as “above average” or “outstanding,” and 9% rating the Democrats as “outstanding” or “above average.” Sixty-nine percent rated the Republicans as “below average” or “poor,” with 64% saying the same about Democrats.

The level of favorability among tea partiers for George W. Bush is extraordinarily high—far more than in the population as a whole. Fifty-seven percent of tea party supporters rate Bush favorably, and only 27% rate him unfavorably (for the sample as a whole the corresponding percentages are reversed 27% favorable, 58% unfavorable. On the other hand Perot supporters rated both Geroge H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton unfavorably, Bush moreso than Clinton.

Perot callers were slightly right of center on the liberal-conservative scale, but on specific issues they were were not consistently conservative. They strongly favored abortion rights, national health insurance, and government controls on pollution, while strongly opposing affirmative action, gun control and the revocation of the death penalty.

But there were a set of issues important to Perot supporters on which they were more extreme than either Democrats or Republicans–economic nationalism, reform, and the budget. On these issues they saw the major parties as indistinguishable and largely indifferent. They staked out positions very different from where they perceived the major parties to stand.

In terms of demographics, Perot supporters were unobservant religiously. Only 38% attended services every week and 16% never attended services-both very different from the American public. And while 33% did not identify as either Protestant, Catholic or Jewish among Perot callers, such was the case for only 15% of tea party supporters. On the other hand the tea party movement and the Perot supporters were both about 60% male and over 90% white.

One of the ironies of the tea “party” is that it is less of a party than the Perot movement was, and yet is more traditionally partisan–i.e., Republican–in its attitudes and preferences. If it is a danger or threat to the Republican Party it is thus a danger from within, not without. And if it is a threat to the Democratic Party it is because it readily mobilizes voters who ultimately are going to vote for Republicans (or more accurately, against Democrats), not third-party candidates.