4/16 update: The New York Times' Megan Thee-Brenan has kindly offered a few comments, posted at the end of this item.
Two new Tax Day polls underscore some of the vagaries of measurement, especially, perhaps, when it comes to gauging support for a new and still somewhat fuzzily understood political movement.
These surveys ask straightforward and almost identical questions – do you consider yourself a supporter of the Tea Party movement, or not? Their results, though, are strikingly different: In an AP/GfK poll, 31 percent of Americans identify themselves as Tea Party supporters. In a CBS/NYT poll it’s 18 percent.
Questionnaire design is one very possible factor. AP/GfK directly precedes its question by asking people if they generally agree with the movement’s positions on political issues; 33 percent say they do. It then asks people if they're supporters of the Tea Party; almost exactly the same number, 31 percent, say yes. Logical – having said they generally agree with it, it's natural next to say they support it.
CBS/NYT does not ask a “generally agree” question; rather it precedes the “support” question by asking people if there’s much difference between the Republican Party and the Tea Party. If that, to some respondents, discourages differentiation, it could impact the support measure.
Another difference is so-called “undecideds,” generally a function of polling technique rather than actual indecision. It’s 20 percent on the support question in the CBS/NYT poll, vs. 9 percent in the AP/GfK data. (I worry that high undecideds can be a sign of satisficing, in which some respondents evade cognitive burden by taking the easy answer when it’s made available.)
In any case where these polls agree is in how many Americans do not consider themselves supporters of the Tea Party – 60 percent in AP-GfK's poll, 62 percent in CBS/NYT’s.
Of course support is not in itself a gauge of commitment. In another approach, 10 percent in a CNN/ORC poll say they’ve taken active steps to support the Tea Party. On one hand there’s always concern about social-engagement bias in surveys (people who answer polls also are more apt to be socially engaged in other ways). On the other, the result is similar to the 13 percent in a Quinnipiac poll last month who called themselves “members” of the party.
In addition to measurement issues, these differences may mark the challenge in gauging support for a group that’s new to the scene, not a fully formed political party and indeed not well known. Fifty-two percent in the AP-GfK poll say they know only a little or nothing about the movement; just 16 percent say they know a great deal or a lot about it. (The rest, “some.”)
In other measures, all these recent polls have about an even division in favorable/unfavorable ratings of the Tea Party movement, which is not particularly good, since this is perhaps the most basic test of popularity. It’s 28-30 percent in the AP-GfK poll and 21-18 percent in the CBS/NYT poll, both of which offer an option to express no opinion. It was 36-34 percent in a Fox poll last week and 41-39 percent in a Washington Post poll last month.
In a potentially ominous result for GOP candidates who don’t toe its line, 66 percent of Tea Party supporters in the CBS/Times poll say they usually or always vote Republican. And another question from last week is interesting because it’s comparative, as is all election politics. Fox asked its respondents which party “best shares your values.” Result: Democratic Party 40 percent, Republican 25, Tea 19.
The Tea Party buzz calls to mind the third-party movement last seen in a time of broad economic discontent (which tends to fuel these things), in 1992. Ross Perot and his Reform Party started out with substantial initial interest, along the lines of what the Tea Party has now. In June 1992 Perot actually numerically led George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton in support for the presidency, with 36 percent.
The Tea Party, though, may hope for a better outcome, since that proved to be Perot’s peak.
From Megan Thee-Brenan of the Times:
"I would like to note that the NYT/CBS News poll oversampled Tea Party supporters and had a robust sample of 881 of them. The other national polls you mention in the post did not include oversamples.
"Also, our support question (Do you consider yourself a supporter of the Tea Party movement, or not?) was only asked of the RDD sample (not the TP callback sample) at that point in the questionnaire. For the Tea Party callback sample, the interviewer verified the respondent's support for the movement in the introduction and did not ask it at Q82 where it was asked of the RDD sample. For what it's worth, I can tell you that when we last asked this in Feb., we got nearly the same result as we did in the latest poll. In Feb., the support question was preceded by a question similar to the AP's question — we asked "From what you have heard or read, would you say you generally agree or disagree with the Tea Party movement's positions on social and political issues?" 24% said they agreed and in the following question, 18% said they were supporters of the TP."