Are the Tea Partiers Divided?

Politico polls on presidential candidates, social issues

The Tea Partiers are divided into two camps for 2012, Politico's lead story tells us this morning: those who support Sarah Palin, and those who support Ron Paul to be the next president of the United States. Politico has put a solid effort into keeping track of Tea Partiers' opinions, and today's story highlights findings from a survey of Tea Partiers who attended a rally on the National Mall last Thursday.

But keep this in mind: neither Palin nor Paul commands anything close to a majority of support among Tea Partiers. Palin had the backing of 15 percent polled; Paul, 14 percent.

So while those two lead the field, it would be an overstatement to say that the Tea Partiers, en masse, fall into two distinct presidential camps for 2012. There is still much time before the primary jockeying heats up, and there's room for just about anyone--Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Speaker Newt Gingrich, maybe even Rep. Mike Pence--to sound the right notes to the Tea Party crowd and emerge with solid backing from the present wave of conservative activists.

What's more interesting about this survey (to me, anyway) is that it finds a schism among Tea Partiers over social issues--particularly, government's role in promoting conservative family values.

51 percent said "government should not promote any particular set of values," while 46 percent said "government should promote traditional family values in our society." (More detailed findings by Politico: 50 percent are angry about the number of abortions conducted in the U.S., 48 percent are angry about the "moral direction of the county," and 73 percent are angry about government intrusion into personal lives.)

That speaks to an important divide Tea Partiers will have to negotiate if they want to keep their movement going. As Politico notes, there are social-conservative Tea Partiers (more prone to backing Palin), and there are libertarian Tea Partiers, turned off by efforts to mobilize around social issues.

Tea Party activists have said they don't want the movement to take up social issues as causes. They want to stay away from them. That's not what the movement is about, they say: it's about fiscal conservatism.

And it is. Tea Partiers are united by opposition to spending--particularly spending initiated by President Obama--and the movement's activist leaders want to keep it that way.

The social issues, however, loom as a potential wedge--not a wedge that's being used by Democrats to divide the movement, at least as of yet, but a latent point of contention. Tea Partiers disagree about a lot of things: organizers want to see the movement do different things, and they want to get different things out of it. If you get a bunch of Tea Partiers in a room, they're bound to disagree about a lot, one Tea Party activist told me recently. There are unique personalities, distinct views, and a lot of passion.

But of everything Tea Partiers may argue about, the approach to social issues seems to be the most pronounced political divide.