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A Teacup Half-Full

There are two ways that one can read the Winston Group poll on the political orientation of those who consider themselves a part of the tea-party movement. One way — the headline that The Hill very reasonably chose — is that about 40 percent of tea-partiers are independents or Democrats. The other — obviously every bit as mathematically valid — is that 60 percent are Republicans. Either way, the results are more interesting than surprising, as they are broadly in line with previous polling on the subject — as well as what I think we can reasonably infer about the movement.

First, the polling. Three relatively recent polls probed tea-partiers as to their political affiliation: the Winston poll that I mentioned (Winston is a Republican polling firm, but I don’t see any obvious reason why its results cannot be trusted in this instance), a Gallup poll which is also out today, and a CBS poll from February. The CBS and Winston polls asked respondents whether they considered themselves to be a part of the tea-party movement; Gallup used a looser definition, asking people whether they supported the tea-party movement instead. Here are the percentage of people in each political camp who said yes:

About half of Republicans say that they support the tea-party movement, while 30 percent consider themselves an active part of it. Among independents, those numbers are 30 and 20, respectively. Only a few Democrats consider themselves to be a part of the tea-party: between 2 and 7 percent, depending on the poll, which is lesser than the fraction of self-identified Democrats who typically vote for a Republican candidate in Presidential elections.

Both the Winston and Gallup polls also asked people about their affinity for the tea-party by ideological group:

Although the Tea Party gets pretty decent numbers among independents, support is smaller among self-proclaimed moderates; only about 15 percent of moderates support the tea-party (Gallup) and about 10 percent consider themselves a part of it (Wilson). Liberals, who support the tea-party in the high single digits, are actually pretty close to the moderates.

OK, so what did we learn here? I think the tea-party basically has three broad defining characteristics — to the extent we can define it at all:

1. It is conservative.
2. It is anti-establishment.
3. It has a somewhat amorphous and nonspecific goals.

The first factor explains why the tea-party potentially does well among both Republicans (almost all of whom are conservative these days) as well as conservative independents. But, the second factor introduces some tension. While, on the one hand, Republicans tend to be more conservative than independents, on the other hand they tend to support the two-party establishment while independents — in broad strokes — are fed up with it. I would guess that if you looked at voters who were both independent and conservative, their support for the tea-party would be at least as high as among Republican conservatives.

Although we can infer that support for the tea party is not very high among non-conservative independents or among Democrats and liberals, the movement does get some support (especially among liberal independents as opposed to liberal Democrats). Why? Because the tea-party has many different faces. It still shows its libertarian roots at times, but is also fairly populist in character. At other times still — such as when Sarah Palin was speaking to the Tea Party Convention — it can more resemble traditional post-Nixonian conservativism (including on social issues) while in yet other incarnations, it has some good-government goals that might be described as bipartisan or even sort of old-school (i.e. 1890s) progressive. Most of the liberals who say they support the tea-party movement probably aren’t out there carrying signs and attending rallies on a regular basis (neither for that matter are most of the conservatives) — but they may still feel some sympathy for it.

As with discussions on the racial demographics in polling, discussions of the tea-party movement tend to percolate on slow news days as the movement provides something of a Rorschach blot that anyone can use to advance their desired narrative. That does not mean that the tea-party is insignificant. Democrats underestimated it last year: it was one of the first tangible signs of trouble for Obama. Republicans may be underappreciating it now: its participants may not be loyal Republicans — but they were instrumental in resetting the mood of the country into the skeptical and occasionally angry place in which Republicans helpfully find it today.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.