Distorting the Polling on Tea Party Supporters

Is theTea Party movement actually more politically diverse than the “liberal media” would have you believe? Andrew Malcolm, a blogger for the L.A. Times who used to be Laura Bush’s press secretary, thinks so. He wrote yesterday (4/5/10) about a pair of polls that came out about the Tea Party movement:

For upwards of 12 months now members of the so-called Tea Party protest movement have been stereotyped, derogated and often dismissed by some politicians and media outlets.

They’ve been portrayed variously as angry fringe elements, often inarticulate, potentially violent and merely Republicans in sheep’s clothing or disgruntled pockets of conservatives blindly lashing out at a left-handed President Obama….

Alas for stereotypes, they’re convenient, often catchy. But not necessarily true.

Now, comes a pair of polls, including Gallup, that paint a revealing detailed portrait of Tea Party supporters in most ways as pretty average Americans.

Oddly, though, the polls cited by Malcolm don’t say anything about whether the Tea Party activists are angry, inarticulate or violent–or whether they’re motivated by racial resentment, which is another criticism frequently leveled at the movement. Instead, the polls mostly provide basic demographic information that is largely irrelevant to the “stereotypes” Malcolm cites about the Tea Party movement.

The polls do give some information about partisan and ideological identification–and on these measures Malcolm’s account is quite misleading. He cites a survey by the Winston Group, a Republican polling firm, that found that 17 percent of Tea Party supporters identify as Democrats as an indication that the movement has a “bipartisan breakdown”–and are therefore the “commonsense Americans” they are portrayed to be by Sarah Palin. But at 17 percent percent, the Tea Parties would have about half as many Democrats as in the general population–and at 57 percent Republican, it would have more than twice as many Republicans. That’s actually not very “bipartisan.”

And while the one poll got 17 percent Democrats, the other poll, by Gallup, found the Tea Party base was only 8 percent Democratic–one-quarter of the party’s proportion in the general population. That’s less than the 12 percent of Tea Party supporters who told Gallup they support the new healthcare law–a proportion Gallup calls “a uniformly negative reaction.”

As for ideology, both polls show Tea Party supporters are much more likely to describe themselves as “conservative” and much less likely to identify as “liberal” than Americans as a whole.

Most of these distortions can be laid at Malcolm’s feet, but there’s one misrepresentation of the polling data that Gallup has to be held responsible for. Malcolm accurately quotes Gallup’s Lydia Saad as saying that “Tea Partiers are quite representative of the public at large” in terms of “race,” among other demographic qualities. But Gallup’s chart indicates that 6 percent of Tea Party supporters identified as non-Hispanic blacks–versus 11 percent for respondents in general. Would a group that was 28 percent female be considered “quite representative of the public at large” in terms of gender? That’s the claim that Gallup is making about the Tea Party movement and race.

(For more on these Tea Party polls, see Political Animal, 4/5/10, and Plum Line, 4/5/10.)

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.