Given a choice between a generic Democratic or Republican candidate in November's mid-term elections, voters preferred Republicans by a margin of 44-39 percent. The presence of a Tea Party candidate on the ballot, however, dramatically upsets that balance.
In a potential race between three candidates, 15 percent of respondents would vote for a Tea Party candidate. Thirty-six percent would vote for a Democrat, while only 25 percent would opt for a Republican, the poll finds.
An example of that dynamic played out in New York's 23rd district special election last fall. Pressured by conservatives and Tea Partiers, moderate Republican nominee Dede Scozzafava elected to drop out of the race to clear the way for Conservative Doug Hoffman. The result: Democrat Bill Owens won a seat that had been strongly Republican for decades.
"The Tea Party could be a Republican dream -- or a GOP nightmare," said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "Members could be a boon to the GOP if they are energized to support Republican candidates. But if the Tea Party were to run its own candidates for office, any votes its candidate received would to a very great extent be coming from the GOP column."
The Tea Party movement is composed mainly of voters who sympathize with the GOP: 74 percent of self-identified Tea Partiers classified themselves as Republicans or independents leaning Republican in the poll.
The poll found that Tea Party membership is predominantly white. It also found it is rather evenly split between between men and women. Seventy-seven percent voted for John McCain in the 2008 presidential election, and 72 percent have a favorable opinion of Sarah Palin. Palin's favorability rating among the public as a whole is only 33 percent.
"Overall, this survey paints a picture of the Tea Party movement that encompasses a broad swath of the American middle class, but clearly at this stage one that is a minority group. In essence their numbers equate to about the size of the African-American electorate overall," said Brown.