Stingrays move on

South Carolina Stingrays

WASHINGTON -- For those in the movement, "the deficit is a symbol of the mess in Washington." They are "deeply anti-political" and hold "deep antipathy to Congress." They are "anti-government and anti-establishment."

Sound familiar? Those words easily could be applied to the tea party movement that has elbowed its way to the front lines of American politics in the past year. In fact, they were written 17 years ago in a Democratic Leadership Council study of Ross Perot supporters.

The Perot movement is an obvious starting point to try to understand the tea party movement. Both movements began during times of economic distress and were built on growing distrust -- even anger -- with Washington and the federal government. Both shook up the established political order, forcing the two major parties to adapt. Many of the tea party activists are new to politics, as were many of those who supported Perot.

But though they share some attitudes and attributes, the tea partiers are not natural descendants of the followers of the quirky Texas billionaire.

The Perot voters were a disparate group, ideologically diverse, with generally secular views. The tea party movement is far more cohesive. If anything, it is simply an adjunct of the conservative wing of the Republican Party, even if many of its supporters say they hold no particular allegiance for the GOP and are critical of party leadership.

A look at exit polls from the 1992 campaign and recent polls examining the tea party movement highlights the unique nature of the two movements.

They look alike. Tea party activists, like Perot voters, are overwhelmingly white. According to a recent Washington Post poll, 87 percent of those who said they strongly support the tea party movement were white. In 1992, 94 percent of Perot voters were white.

The tea party is more male than female, just as with the Perot movement. Fifty-seven percent of tea party supporters are male, according to the Post survey, which is five points higher than Perot backers in 1992.

But the differences are more revealing. One is age. Perot voters were significantly younger than tea party activists. Sixty-three percent of Perot voters were ages 18 to 44. In the Post survey, only 44 percent of tea party supporters were younger than 45. A CBS-New York Times survey last week found an even older skew to the movement, with 75 percent of those they identified as tea party activists 45 or older.

More than half of the tea party activists have incomes of $50,000 or more, compared with just 44 percent of the overall population. Perot voters mirrored the population at large in terms of income.

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 of today, the Perot voters were far less conservative.

The author of the 1993 DLC report, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, sees almost no relationship between the Perot movement and today's tea party activism.

Perot voters, he argued, were consciously breaking with the two parties. The tea party activists are not. "While the tea party people seem very critical of the party, they are very embracing of the party," he said. "They want to shape and define the Republican Party."

The Perot movement created a competition between the two major parties. The Democrats have no real hope of attracting tea party activists, given their ideological makeup. The question is whether the Republican Party can harness this new movement's energy without paying too high a price.