The tea party is failing to woo young voters despite a loose structure that could make it easier for those under 30 to achieve leadership roles, analysts and political activists say as the grass-roots movement prepares to flex its muscles in midterm elections.
A survey released Oct. 21 by Harvard University's Institute of Politics showed that only 11 percent of those 18 to 29 consider themselves supporters of the tea party, and analysts say the leaderless movement's ties to social conservatism and rhetoric in favor of an earlier America are hampering its appeal.
Despite widespread voter anger ahead of Tuesday's midterm elections, the tea party has been a hard sell to young voters because many equate joining with embracing conservative social values, said Peter Levine, director of CIRCLE, a Tufts University group that conducts research on the political involvement of young Americans. He said this holds true even for those who would otherwise identify with the party's call for stricter fiscal conservatism.
"A lot of young people, whether it's from the media, professors or other sources, come to the opinion that the tea party is just a bunch of right-wing extreme radicals, racists _ whatever," said Patrick Kelly, a tea party activist and freshman at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Ill. "That's the biggest deterrent."
Tea party supporters want to open the door for young voters, and FreedomWorks president Matt Kibbe said the movement can win over those under 30 by placing them in leadership roles. FreedomWorks was founded by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, and has fueled much of the movement's growth.
"More young leaders begets more young participants," Kibbe said. He said that young voters are tougher to organize but that the tea party can engage them through things they enjoy. "The tea party is different," he said. "We have music, we have fun, we do protests. It's a different set of activities than your typical, canned Republican stump speech that was driving people away in droves."
Matthew Segal, the 25-year-old executive director of the nonpartisan Student Association for Voter Empowerment, said the tea party's opposition to government action also turns off young voters. "The tea party is based on an anti-government premise, and young people are the most trusting constituency of government," said Segal, whose Washington-based organization promotes electoral participation by students.
And while the tea party often seems to be recalling earlier times, with rhetoric harkening back to the Founding Fathers, American youth don't always share those sympathies. Even the movement's name refers to an insurrection more than two centuries ago, notes Christopher Kukk, who teaches political science at Western Connecticut State University.
"It's all about keeping America, preserving America, not changing America," Kukk said. Young people, he said, are "talking about changing America."
Many young voters also recoil at the tea party's homogenous racial makeup. According to the Pew Research Center's October political survey, 85 percent of registered voters who agree with the tea party are white. Just 2 percent are black.
"The young generation is just by the numbers the most diverse generation in American history," Levine said. "You can't get that much purchase on this generation if you look like you're all white."
Supporters agree that a large part of the party's problem with youth is perception. Although some tea party groups are libertarian and don't espouse socially conservative values, voters and the media rarely make that distinction, said Emily Ekins, a UCLA doctoral student who studies the movement's different, and sometimes opposing, philosophies.
Some tea party backers also note the generational gap when it comes to all the talk about history. Joel Pollak, a tea party-endorsed Republican trying to unseat Democrat Jan Schakowsky in Illinois' 9th Congressional District, said young voters' lack of Cold War memories prevents them from recognizing the threat that overreaching government policies pose to American freedom.
"Young people today grew up with very little knowledge of communism and socialism," the 33-year-old Pollak said.
Still, observers see an opportunity for a third-party group to make headway. More than 40 percent of voters under 30 don't identify with a major political party, according to Harvard University's October poll.
"There is room for an independent party to rise up and grab young people," Segal said. "If the tea party numbers don't show that, then they clearly aren't resonating with young voters."