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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

More on the Tea Party Movement

Each side of the political spectrum appears to have a vested interest in portraying the Tea Party movement in the specific way that best fits their ideological positioning.  This is of course not at all a surprising fact of life in a hot political environment.

Those with a negative orientation toward the Tea Party have an interest in marginalizing it as a narrow segment of ideologues. Those with a positive orientation are interested in portraying the movement as widespread and representative of a broad swath of the American population.

The exact "size" of this movement is difficult to quantify. The number of actual participants in the Tea Party movement -- those who appear in person at rallies or meetings -- is, on a relative basis, small. That is, hundreds or thousands or even tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands as compared to the base of 300+ million Americans or about 220 million adult Americans. But. As is the case for an iceberg, what's visible often tells us little about the size of what is beneath the water.

Survey research has an important role to play in this arena. Surveys are, in theory, our most effective mechanism for gauging the level of commitment or support or agreement with the Tea Party movement out there across the country.

Note that I used several different nouns to describe what it is we are measuring. That’s because there is not an accepted or universally agreed-upon standard for defining participation in the Tea Party movement.

Let’s look at some numbers. We asked Americans in our USA Today/Gallup poll if they considered themselves to be a “supporter of the Tea Party movement, an opponent of the Tea Party movement, or neither.” The results showed 28% supporters, 26% opponents, and the rest either “neither” or with no opinion.

This question leaves it to the respondent to define what is meant by support (and opposition). It assumes nothing about either physical support (going to a rally) or financial support.

Contrast that to the finding of a recent Quinnipiac poll which asked “Do you consider yourself part of the Tea party movement or not” and found only 13% saying yes. The phrase “a part of . . . ” here presumably connotes to the respondent a more active form of participation. It’s unlikely that 29 million Americans (13% of the 220 million 18+ adults in this country) have actively participated in a rally or some other behavioral manifestation of support. But the language appears to erect a more substantial cognitive barrier for the respondent than does “support.” More people say they are supporters than are willing to say that they are “a part” of the movement.

This 13% in the Quinnipiac poll is similar to the 11% who were defined as Tea Party “activists” by CNN based on a poll conducted back in February. The CNN question defined activists as those who at that point said they had given money to the Tea Party movement, attended a rally or meeting associated with the Tea Party movement, or took “other active steps to support the Tea Party movement, either in person or on the Internet.”

At the other end of the spectrum, a recent The Washington Post/ABC News poll asked “Given what you know about the Tea Party's positions on the issues, would you say that overall you agree with them strongly, agree somewhat, disagree somewhat, or disagree strongly?”

The results showed 46% agreeing with the issues either strongly or somewhat. Forty percent disagreed.

This is, of course, a fairly loose definition of support.  I think there would be general agreement that one of the Tea Party movement’s positions on the issues is opposition to the recently enacted healthcare reform law. Our most recent poll found that 50% of Americans think that passage of this law was a bad thing. In theory, all of these people could therefore have said that they agree with the Tea Party’s positions on the issues. The 50% who say healthcare reform was a bad thing is not too far off of the 46% in the Washington Post/ABC News poll who say they agree (at least somewhat) with the Tea Party's positions on the issues.

So we are left with a fairly wide range of reactions to the Tea Party as defined by surveys -- ranging from 11% to 13% who are “activists” or who define themselves as “a part” of the movement to 46% who at least somewhat agree with the Tea Party movement’s ideas.

Our Gallup measure of  “support/opposition” allows people to respond affirmatively who may not be active in the movement, yet restricts the respondents to those who have to have more than a modicum of support for the whole idea of the Tea Party movement. As it turns out, our 28% support figure appears to be somewhat of a midpoint.

Who Supports the Tea Party Movement?

Exactly who is or is not a supporter of the Tea Party movement? As you can tell from my discussion above, a lot of the answer to that question is going to depend on how you define support. (See here for a profile of supporters based on an analysis of the “activist” question asked in February in the CNN/Opinion Research poll).

My colleague Lydia Saad showed tables that deconstructed supporters (based on our Gallup question) into various political, ideological, and demographic categories. Tea Party supporters are actually fairly close to the overall national average in terms of their age, education, employment status, and, to a degree, racial and ethnic backgrounds.

The finding on employment is important. A recent piece in The New York Times highlighted Tea Party activists who were able to find time for their activism because they were unemployed. (Of course, being unemployed also generates a lot of angst and anger, which can be displaced onto social movements.) But our data on Tea Party supporters shows them to be no more likely to be unemployed that the average American. About half are employed full-time and a quarter retired -- both figures that are very close to what we found for all Americans we interviewed.

Politically and ideologically, Tea Party supporters are different from the overall American population. In particular, as Lydia points out, only 8% of supporters in response to our question identify as Democrats. That compares to 32% of all of those interviewed in the sample who were Democrats. Forty-nine percent were Republicans, compared to 28% in the overall sample. And 43% independent, compared to 40% in the entire sample.

These partisan data are based on what we call our “original” question on party identification: “In politics, as of today, do you consider yourself a Republican, a Democrat, or an independent?”

Of interest are the data based on leaned independents. (We follow up with those who identify as independents and ask: “As of today, do you lean more to the Democratic Party or the Republican Party?”) In this particular poll, the combined categories ended up being 46% Republican/lean Republican and 46% Democrat/lean Democrat.)

It appears that a healthy majority of those independents who are supporters of the Tea Party movement lean toward the Republican Party. When we do the math, we end up with 83% of supporters who are Republican or lean Republican, 4% who are pure independent (don’t lean to either party) and 13% who are Democratic or lean Democratic.

The conclusion is simply a reinforcement of what Lydia wrote in the story: “Tea Party supporters are decidedly Republican and conservative in their leanings.” Just how different these supporters are on other demographic dimensions will depend on how they are defined.


douglas said...
April 14, 2010 at 9:33 PM  

Honest, logical construction.
Unfortunately, not much of that going around these days...

Anonymous said...
August 28, 2010 at 5:37 AM  

Thanks for your observations. But they raise a troubling question. Instead of navel-gazing about semantics, why won't pollsters (presumably interested in the public good at least at some level) vet to confirm whether or not Tea Partiers are indeed miserably misinformed on even the most basic issues of history and civic discourse?

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