Politics

The Poll Heard Round the World

Could a Tea Party candidate actually win an election?

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN).
Michele Bachmann

One key to the success of the Tea Party movement is that no one has bothered to measure it. Democrats pump up Tea Partiers—or, in their preferred nomenclature, tea baggers—as a fringe coalition of nativists and neo-Nazis taking over the Republican Party. Moderate Republicans dismiss them as a small but vocal band of gripers. Conservative Republicans claim they’re a vibrant cross-section of concerned Americans like you and me. The argument, and the publicity, is endless, because no one knows how many Tea Partiers there are.

Until now. Rasmussen Reports took the first crack last week at measuring the strength of a third-party “Tea Party” candidate on a generic ballot, and the results are in. “Suppose the Tea Party Movement organized itself as a political party,” the survey asked. “When thinking about the next election for Congress, would you vote for the Republican candidate from your district, the Democratic candidate from your district, or the Tea Party candidate from your district?” Democrats led the way with 36 percent. Republicans pulled in 18 percent. And the Tea Party candidate got 23 percent. The Democratic National Committee would like to point out that 23 is more than 18.

Many poll watchers, especially liberal ones, view Rasmussen with some skepticism and say its results tend to favor conservative politicians and positions. (See Pollster.com’s Mark Blumenthal for possible explanations.) While the survey interviews “likely voters,” it doesn’t define exactly what that means. It doesn’t release party-identification cross-tabs, so we don’t know how many of those interviewed are Republicans or Democrats. Many of the questions seem worded to elicit a conservative response. (“Whose judgment do you trust more—the American people or America’s political leaders?”) And they often do: Compare the Rasmussen results in recent congressional polls with all the other surveys. Furthermore, the fact that the phone poll is automated, rather than conducted by human beings, raises eyebrows.

But none of those concerns should provide much comfort to Republicans. For one thing, the poll jibes with other recent Rasmussen surveys. In the three most recent Rasmussen national congressional ballots, Democrats poll at 37 or 38 percent. Republicans, meanwhile, hover at 44 percent. In the Tea Party survey, the Democrats’ number doesn’t move—it remains at 36—whereas the Republican number plunges. This suggests that respondents aren’t professing allegiance to some generic independent third party. Rather, they know what they’re talking about when they say they support the Tea Parties. Ideally, the question would have listed a generic independent third party, as a control. As Blumenthal puts it: “How much of this is the Glenn Beck-, Fox News-inspired movement that those of us who cover politics know so well, and how much is third party identification?” But the fact that nearly all of the support came from the Republican side suggests it’s the former.

That’s not to say that, if an independent Tea Party were founded tomorrow, it would beat the Republican Party in an election. Scott Rasmussen admits as much in his write-up of the survey: “In practical terms, it is unlikely that a true third-party option would perform as well as the polling data indicates.” But it’s the closest number we have, so far, to identifying how large a segment of the population identifies with the protesters we see on TV (or, for members of Congress, outside their windows).

Rasmussen cautions against attaching a number to the movement itself. “You can get a sense of it,” he says, “but you can’t pretend to have real precision.” It’s like measuring the size of the “investor class.” Ask people, and they’ll probably say they’re not part of it. Ask them what they own in stocks, bonds, and mutual funds, and you may get different results. Likewise, the number of people who self-identify as Tea Partiers is going to be different from the number of people who want lower taxes, deficit reduction, and smaller government.

If anything, the uncertainty about their actual numbers benefits the Tea Partiers. As John M. O’Hara, author of the upcoming book A New American Tea Party, puts it: “In a way, the inability to pin down an exactly number speaks to the broad appeal of this movement.” On the other hand, it may also reflect a vagueness of mission. Some oppose cap and trade. Others care about the deficit. A third group really, really liked John Adams.

But the poll’s real significance is that it upends the spoiler equation. Until now, a conservative running on a third-party ticket, as Doug Hoffman did in New York’s 23rd Congressional District, was considered a spoiler for dividing the GOP coalition. If Tea Party supporters outnumber Republicans, who’s the spoiler then?