We Have Seen the Tea Party, and It Is Us

Demographically, that is.

Gallup has released a random survey of those who support the Tea Party movement and the findings help dispel the notion propagated on some web sites that the group consists largely of Chevy-driving bitter white males who can’t spell. In fact, as this Gallup table indicates, Tea Partiers are, in terms of age, education, employment and race, almost indistinguishable from a cross-section of all Americans.

They are slightly more male, and slightly more affluent, than a comparable sample of Americans.  But what really distinguish the Tea Partiers are their political views.  As the following table shows, they are more likely to be Republican, and more likely to hold conservative views, than the comparison group.  Interestingly, however, about half of the movement’s support comes from non-Republicans (assuming we treat independents as true independents.)  So this is clearly not a purely partisan movement.

All told, some 28% of those surveyed say they support the Tea Party movement, making it as, or more, popular, right now, than the Republican Party, according to some polls.  Interestingly, the number of independents who support the movement are about the same proportion as in the population at large.

Now, there are a couple of caveats to keep in mind in interpreting these results.  First, these are people who claim to support the movement.  It may not reflect the more activist element that actually shows up to Tea Party rallies.  Second, as with any poll, question wording can skew results.  In this case, Gallup asks about Tea Partiers’ views on abortion. However, by limiting the choice to either “pro-life” or “pro-choice”, Gallup fails to tap into the more nuanced views most Americans, including I’m guessing Tea Partiers, have regarding abortion.  Few Americans characterize themselves as purely “prochoice” or “prolife” if given a broader range of options.

Nonetheless, the survey is a welcome first step in trying to understand an increasingly influential political movement, one that may be in a position to shape results in the upcoming midterm elections.  To this point, media opinion pieces (as in New York Times‘ columns here and here) have tended to portray the movement as agglomeration of right-wing antigovernment types mingling with the bitter bible thumping crowd.  But, as the Gallup data indicates, it’s clear that the movement is more widely-based.  It appears to be tapping into a deep-seated unease that cuts across economic and educational lines, one predicated on worries about the economy and about “bigness” – big banks, big corporate bailouts, big government health programs and, most worrisome – big debt in general.  At this point it is unclear to me whether this loose and as yet unfocused social movement will translate into an effective political force that influences the 2010 midterm elections, and the following presidential election.

Historically, the Tea Party movement fits well with a long American tradition of anti ”bigness”-based social movements dating back to Jacksonian democracy and opposition to a U.S.-chartered bank during the 1830’s through the agrarian-based populist movement of the 1890’s and the “share-the-wealth” Townsend movement of the 1930’s and up to the anti-tax revolution of the late 1970’s.  Perhaps the most recent comparable movement was that led by Ross Perot who, as the head of the Reform Party,  used voter outrage over government spending and budget deficits to win nearly 20% of the popular presidential vote in 1992.  In this respect, the Tea Party movement is certainly not new, and indeed is distinctly American.

The problem with sustaining such movements is that their antigovernment sentiment makes it difficult for members to take the steps, such as organizing to run candidates, which are required to transform a movement fueled by voter outrage into an institutionalized party or make sustained policy changes. In this respect, the antitax movement spawned by property tax rollbacks in California and Massachusetts is an exception to the rule; it resulted in an enduring shift in how states raised revenue, and helped lay the basis for the Reagan era.   History suggests, however, that if the Tea Party movement continues to grow, the passions that fuel it will likely be coopted, perhaps in watered-down form, by one of the two existing parties.  At this point, Democrats have to worry that the anti-incumbent, anti-government sentiment driving Tea Party activism will most directly target them in 2010. For Democrats, the best way to defuse that anger, and weaken the movement, is to hope that the early signs of economic recovery are a harbinger of better things to come.

If conditions do not improve, however – if the economy remains mired in slow growth and high unemployment, I expect the next phase in the Tea Party movement will be to coalesce around a figurehead who can embrace its ideals and compete in the 2012 presidential elections.

And who might that be?  I can’t see the future.   But I can see, when I look out my back door in Ripton, the distant shores of Alaska.


  1. Lets say the Tea party movement does indeed continue to be a political force, and does coalesce around a candidate. I wonder what you think of the following scenario:

    1. Candidate is very far to the right, and may well be the “libertarian” candidate. This seems likely, considering tea partier’s general philosophy.

    2. Candidate runs in the Republican primary (again, likely) and either wins or is beaten by a more moderate Republic. Romney or someone like that.

    3. Depending on the outcome above, we’d either see a far right Republican candidate for the presidency OR the tea party candidate run as a third party. The latter option seems likely, considering the anger most tea partier’s seem to direct at the “mainstream” republican party. If they were dedicated enough to put up a candidate for the primary, Id have to think they’d be dedicated enough to see it through if their candidate didn’t win. They’ve not been shy so far about running against moderate republicans in congressional races, at least.

    4. So we’ve probably got Obama running against either a far right Republican or a moderate Republican and a far right tea partier.

    I have to think that in either case, Obama wins handily, as the tea party either alienates a good portion of independent voters or splits the conservative vote.

    If that’s all true, than shouldn’t democrats be excited about the tea party movement, at least in terms of the Presidential race? I understand fear in congressional races, but not for the Presidency. If anything, I’d expect democrats to think “the more tea party, the better.”

  2. Avery, your logic is sound, and indeed the scenario you paint is quite similar to what happened in 1992 when, according to some election analysts, Perot siphoned off enough otherwise Republican votes to swing the election to Clinton. At this point, however, I don’t think survey respondents are framing their answers in terms of the likely impact of the tea party movement on the 2012 presidential race. They are, for now, reacting on the more general media-driven impression of what the Tea Party stands for. The big worry for the incumbent party in charge, that is, the Democrats is that all that voter anger will fuel a “throw the bums out” reaction in the 2010 midterms. Combined with the normal midterm loss experienced by the president’s party, that could lead to a Republican takeover a scant two years into Obama’s presidency. And here’s where the analogy to 1992 could potentially breakdown two years later: if the Tea Party movement continues to attract at least half of its support from non-Republicans, it is conceivable that the anti-incumbent sentiment will be turned on Obama, making him the Bush-equivalent target of voter wrath. In this case, the Republican candidate simply has to stay above the fray and let Obama become the issue.

    Again, however, this is all moot if the economy turns around.

  3. I see Avery’s point, but I do not see the tea party making itself into a third party (again, it is a movement not an organized structure, nor will it become an organized structure), but what I do see (and I think we see it already in the strict partisan divide on the healthcare vote), is that the tea party is having the effect of pulling Republicans back to the right where they once were. If we remember correctly, the Republican party was starting to abandon its more conservative base of support (and most influencial base of support) directly after the 2008 elections and the whipping the Republican Party took that fall.

    The way things are going now, to Avery I would have to say that I think we are more likely to see a starkly conservative republican candidate vs. a starkly liberal incumbent in 2012. While these polls are not perfect (and they never are) from what I have seen is that around 40% of Tea Partiers do not call themselves “republican”…an interesting stat…but that suggests even moderates or “independents” are perhaps starting to step back and move away from the “bigness” of government and spending that the Obama administration is continuing to advocate. If things keep up the way they are, whether you are a Democrat or Republican, you must admit that conservative candidates advocating for smaller government and reduced spending will be in a pretty good position come 2012 (and perhaps this november?) if things don’t shape up economically (most importantly in regard to unemployment).

    Either way, I am sticking to what I’ve said in class…the tea party is not, and will not, start a third party. If anything, I feel it has, and will continue to, pull the Republican party back to the right. What Tea Partiers are looking for is another Reagan-type President.

  4. Matt–a quick point on the survey data: I was skeptical when I saw the USA Today/Gallup data noting that 75% of the U.S. population was non-hispanic white, and indeed, this significantly overstates the census data. It is actually around 65%; see: http://factfinder.census.gov/servlet/DTTable?_bm=y&-ds_name=ACS_2008_1YR_G00_&-CONTEXT=dt&-mt_name=ACS_2008_1YR_G2000_B03002&-redoLog=true&-geo_id=01000US&-format=&-_lang=en&-SubjectID=15233308

    The 75% number is overall whites that include hispanic, so this tea-party does skew quite a bit whiter than the table presents…

  5. Jeff – I can’t be sure, since I don’t have access to the questions or crosstabs but I think the Tea Party sample is drawn from the overall Gallup sample of all adults, so it’s not clear to me that even if the overall sample of adults oversamples non-hispanic whites (the margin of error of the total sample is about 4%) what that means for the in-sample comparison between Tea Partiers and non-tea partiers. There still may be no difference between them, racially. Unless Gallup oversampled from Tea Partiers, however, all the numbers for the subgroup of Tea Parties have to be taken with a grain of salt, that is, they are likely to have larger margins of error.

  6. As is stated, the Tea Party movement is a cross section of America. People support or participate in the Tea Party for the reasons stated, a more or less traditional American response to big government, big government programs, big taxes, big waste, and seemingly non stop government spending, especially in bad economic times. The reaction is “throw the bums out”. That’s nothing new.

    There is no difference between republicrats and democans. Voters are fed up. All the Tea Party has to do is to remain center right, and independents will flock to them. Extreme politics will not play here. That Obama got elected was more a function of total media support of Obama, America’s fatigue with war, and the not to be underestimated
    fact of the federal government screwing up the economy. Remember, the government is as much to blame for this economic collapse as is Wall Street. Again, do not underestimate the media simply rolling over for Obama.

    Since the President insists on continuing to spend money that doesn’t exist, amass unheard of levels of debt, and flat out lie about how everything is fine economically, that cross section of America is screaming out “enough”. However, no one, neither democrat nor republican, is really listening. Why should they? They are the same, have been for years now, and all spend and spend.

    A commission has been appointed by the President to make recommendations on how to cut spending. They are to report back to him in December. Everyone on the commission is over 70. We ought to get some great, new ideas out of this bunch! For this they need until December? Why not JUST STOP SPENDING! ROLL BACK THE FEDERAL BUDGET TO 1995, or 1990, and that’s the budget. Everything else gets cut. That won’t take until December to figure out. How tough is that?

    Of course, what is more telling than the sudden decision of more and more incumbents to “retire” at this time? Who retires? They stay in Congress until they die, because it is such a great gig, and such a great scam. Where else do you get to make rules that you can exempt yourself from? Whatever happened to equal protection under the law, and no one being above the law? Like I said, nice gig.

    Oh, btw, I am a 57 yr old Middlebury parent, for what that’s worth. Thanks for allowing me my $.02.

  7. “History suggests, however, that if the Tea Party movement continues to grow, the passions that fuel it will likely be coopted, perhaps in watered-down form, by one of the two existing parties.”

    I think you’re absolutely right on this point, Rapoport and Stone have a good book on this topic. Any readers of this blog that are interested in how the Republicans absorbed much of the Perot constituency should check it out: http://books.google.com/books?id=LpBe1psZNk0C&lpg=PP1&ots=nZgyEWsHQn&dq=walt%20stone%20ross%20perot&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false — the theory in the book speaks to what might plausibly happen in this new situation.

    Thanks for the post, I’ve been waiting to see some survey results on this subject.

  8. Conor – I have not read the NYTimes poll in any detail, but I saw more overlap demographically between their results and Gallup’s than I did differences. Interestingly, the Gallup poll incited a lot of pushback on the Left to the premise that the Tea Party, demographically speaking, is fairly representative of Americans more generally. They seem to have ignored the other finding, which is that the movement is distinctly conservative. I’ve now come across several studies of the movement, so I’ll try to post another comment on it as soon as grading permits. But the Tea Party movement has clearly touched a political nerve, which is interesting in itself – certainly the comments above suggest the range of reactions it is inciting.

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