Tea party activists refuse to claim Donald Trump as one of their own and swear he hasn’t become the de facto leader of the movement, but they still cheer on tea party members who rally behind the billionaire businessman to help keep him at the front of the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
Mr. Trump doesn’t fit neatly into a tea party mold. His campaign isn’t built on small-government and constitutionalist ideals that are the foundation of the tea party movement that blossomed in the United States in 2009.
Nevertheless, top activists see the plainspoken and combative Mr. Trump as a Ronald Reagan or John Wayne figure who they believe can unite conservative voters to win the White House and put the country back on track.
“We don’t really view him as a true tea party candidate,” said Ken Crow, a tea party activist in Iowa who is supporting Mr. Trump. “He doesn’t have a history of being real conservative on a lot of issues, but we do see him as probably the only one who can save the country. That’s why the support level is what it is for him.”
Most tea party leaders named Sen. Ted Cruz as the tea party favorite in the presidential race. And yet the movement hasn’t coalesced behind the Texas Republican.
Mr. Trump edged out Mr. Cruz for tea party support, 32 percent to 30 percent, in a Quinnipiac University Poll earlier this month. It was an improvement for Mr. Cruz since September, when Mr. Trump topped him among tea party members 37 percent to 19 percent.
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Similar to other recent surveys, the poll showed Mr. Trump leading the race overall, with 24 percent of support among likely Republican voters, and Mr. Cruz trailing in fourth place with 13 percent.
There also has been a subtle shift in the tea party’s focus from issues such as repealing Obamacare to addressing illegal immigration, which coincides with Mr. Trump making a crackdown on illegal immigration a cornerstone of his campaign.
The Quinnipiac Poll identified immigration as the No. 2 issue for tea party voters behind the economy and jobs.
The solid tea party backing, and a flood of newly engaged conservative voters that Mr. Trump has brought into the process, have kept him out in front since he entered the race in June.
Part of the reason Mr. Crow and other tea party voters gravitated to Mr. Trump is because they view him as more electable than Mr. Cruz, who has been vilified by the left since his election to the U.S. Senate in the 2012 tea party wave.
“He is the man that most of the membership of the tea party recognizes as the one that can get elected and get the job done,” Mr. Crow said. “He’s John Wayne. He’s not going to take crap off of anybody. America is going, ‘Yeah, we finally have John Wayne back.’”
“The success of the tea party comes from not having a leader,” said Sal Russo, founder and chief strategist of Tea Party Express.
He said that Mr. Trump wasn’t leading the movement but was expanding the conservative base in a way similar to Reagan, appealing not to voters’ ideology but to their hunger for a better life.
Recalling how Reagan often talked about how the American public doesn’t look at candidates through an ideological lens but in terms of whether the candidate will lift up or bring down the quality of life in America, he said that Mr. Trump had the same political instincts and demonstrated it with his vow to “make America great again.”
“Our voters are not that much different from the average voter. And so there’s not a big difference between what you see in the national polls and what you see among people who support tea party ideas,” he said.
Mr. Russo pushed back against pundits who have pronounced that the tea party’s influence is fading, citing polls such as a recent Public Religion Research Institute survey that found the number of self-identified tea party members has dropped from 11 percent in 2010 to 6 percent today.
“People point out how few people self-identify as tea party. I would say just look at the election results,” he said. “The fact that [voters] are responding to tea party issues and electing more conservatives than we’ve elected since 1926 says it is a potent and powerful movement, and it still is.”
He was referring to Republican wins in 2014 that gave the party the largest majority in the House since President Calvin Coolidge occupied the White House.
While arguing that Mr. Trump wasn’t a true tea party conservative and wasn’t taking over the movement, the tea party leaders also maintained that he had been good for the cause.
“Donald Trump’s entry into this presidential campaign and the policies [for] the most part that he has advocated are a tremendous benefit to our nation as a whole. And I say this because a lot of the issues Donald Trump has taken a stand on are positions that our leaders in Washington have failed us on,” said Joe Dugan, founder and executive producer of the South Carolina Tea Party Coalition Convention.
“Donald Trump, because of his celebrity, because of his wealth, he attracts a lot of attention,” said Mr. Dugan. “The mainstream media covers everything he says. And we in the tea party have been shouting out this message and begging for years for someone to listen.”