How might changes in Tea Party support affect a Chaffetz-Hatch-Matheson race?

The Tea Party movement in Utah is becoming more and more of a Republican phenomenon.

The Tea Party movement continues to make its voice heard around the country and in Utah. Earlier this week, tea party activists protested at the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s Washington D.C. headquarters because of the organization’s support of Senator Orrin Hatch’s reelection campaign. With Representative Jason Chaffetz increasingly leaning toward challenging Hatch in 2012, Senator Bennett’s ouster at the hands of Republican delegates is no doubt on the minds of both Hatch and Chaffetz. A May 2010 survey of Republican convention delegates conducted by BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy (CSED) found that 86% of delegates held a favorable view of the Tea Party movement and 43% considered themselves to be “active supporters” of the Tea Party.

But does Hatch have reason to worry? We don’t have any new data on the delegates selected in 2010 and a new crop will be selected in early 2012 anyway. What we do have are data about the change in Utah voters’ attitudes toward the Tea Party from November 2010 to April 2011. The November data come from the Utah Colleges Exit Poll and the April 2011 data come from the Utah Voter Poll.

In both surveys voters were asked whether they “have a favorable or unfavorable impression of the political movement known as the Tea Party.” They were also asked: “Do you consider yourself to be an active supporter of the Tea Party movement, or not?”

Overall there is relative stability in these questions about the Tea Party. In November, 53% of voters held a favorable impression of the Tea Party. Five months later that figure dropped slightly to 46%. Over the same period, the proportion of Utah voters who consider themselves active supporters of the Tea Party slipped from 22% to 20%.

Tea Party favorability among all Utahns

However, the overall stability conceals some very dramatic changes when the numbers are broken down by party identification. The Tea Party declined in favorability among all Utah voters except among self-identified “strong Republicans.” In November, the Tea Party was even viewed favorably by a small proportion of Democrats. By April, virtually no Democrats expressed a favorable view. However, the most dramatic change is among Independents. Almost half of independents viewed the Tea Party favorably in November, but the same was true of only about 1 in 4 by April. Tea Party favorability also declined among “independent leaning Republicans” and “not so strong Republicans” but increased among “strong Republicans.” The same essential trend holds true for the question gauging “active support” for the Tea Party movement.

So while the overall favorability and active support stay relatively even over time, the small increase in Tea Party support among the numerous “strong Republicans” conceals some of the very meaningful change among other partisan groups.

Tea Party favorability in Utah, by partisanship

Tea Party support in Utah, by partisanship

What are the implications of these trends? First, it appears that the Tea Party movement in Utah is becoming more and more of a Republican phenomenon. It may be true that those voters with weaker attachments to the Republican Party are less enchanted with the Tea Party. It may also be true that those with strong attachments to the Tea Party have become more enamored with the Republican Party. With more data over time, we’ll be able to see if the association between the Tea Party and the Republican Party is strengthening or not.

The news for Hatch and Chaffetz is mixed. The strength of the Tea Party appears to be holding among the strongest Republicans (this group is much more likely to serve as delegates). The danger for both Hatch and Chaffetz is that in appealing to the very conservative Tea Party delegates, they may alienate Republicans with weaker partisan attachments that will be very important to withstanding a general election challenge from a popular Democrat like Jim Matheson who has historically counted moderate Republicans as an essential component of a winning coalition.

Update: I have had a few requests for sample sizes for the survey questions.  Here they are:

Tea Party favorability question:
November 2010 Utah Colleges Exit Poll, n=1956
April 2011 Utah Voter Poll, n=609

Tea Party active support question:
November 2010 Utah Colleges Exit Poll, n=1917
April 2011 Utah Voter Poll, n=606

Full topline results for the April 2011 Utah Voter Poll have now been posted here.

Matt Frei, an undergraduate political science major and research fellow with the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, contributed both analysis and writing to this blog post.

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About Quin Monson

Quin Monson is Associate Professor of Political Science and a Senior Scholar with the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University.
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