Well off angry white males support Tea Party

Much is being made of a New York Times story yesterday describing self-identified Tea Party supporters as “wealthier and more well-educated than the general public, and [as] no more or less afraid of falling into a lower socioeconomic class.” Republicans interested in being elected (rather than in a violent uprising) have grounds for some cautious optimism from these results, which appear to indicate the usual delusions common to substantial portions of the U.S. population and a fairly mainstream conservativism. This survey presents an image of relatively well-off (56 percent making $50,000 per year or more) but angry or dissatisfied (94 percent) at Washington, D.C., white (89 percent) males (59 percent) who are nonetheless content with their own finances (78 percent). They may be losing their grip on politics and on their world, but they still see political choices as a dichotomy: while only 54 percent express a favorable opinion of the Republican Party, only 54 percent identify as Republicans, and 61 percent see some difference between the Tea Party and the Republican Party, 52 percent oppose creating a third party to challenge Democrats and Republicans. They aren’t voting Democrat and they aren’t advocating violence: 92 percent have a “not favorable” impression of the Democratic Party and 71 percent believe it is “[never] justified for citizens to take violent action against the government.”

Only partly belying the pundits who lampoon them for opposing government spending while collecting Social Security and Medicare benefits, of the 92 percent of Tea Party supporters who want a smaller government offering fewer services, 74 percent would accept cuts to Medicare, Social Security, education, or defense, even though 62 percent feel “the benefits from government programs such as Social Security and Medicare are worth the costs for taxpayers.” 56 percent said neither they nor a member of their immediate families were covered by Medicare. 51 percent said the same of Social Security retirement benefits.

57 percent hold a favorable opinion of George W. Bush, 59 percent said the same of Glenn Beck. 66 percent have a favorable opinion of Sarah Palin but 47 percent believe she lacks “the ability to be an effective president.” But 52 percent believe they are paying a fair–as opposed to unfair–share of taxes.

In contrast to portrayals of Tea Partiers as gun nuts, 65 percent of their supporters said businesses should be permitted to forbid “customers from openly carrying guns in their establishments.” 31 percent of them personally own firearms, 12 percent live with someone else who owns firearms, 15 percent both personally own firearms and live someone else who does, but 32 percent live in non-firearms owning households.

They aren’t all “birthers.” While 30 percent believe Obama was born in another country, 41 percent believe he was born in the United States. While much is made of Tea Partiers’ visible racism, 65 percent of supporters said Obama’s policies were treating blacks and whites the same. Indeed, their views might be described as post-racial: 73 percent believe blacks and whites have an “equal chance of getting ahead [in today’s society]” and 52 percent believe “too much has been made of the problems facing black people.” 42 percent said “legal immigration” should be decreased, but 39 percent said it should be kept the same. Such views might be expected given that they are 89 percent white and 95 percent not Hispanic. Only one percent said they were black. I don’t know where Salon.com’s David Jarman is getting this, but he points out, via Joan Walsh, that

People who think that “the U.S. government has done too much to support blacks” were 36 percent more likely to support the Tea Party than those who didn’t think so. Among whites who approve of the Tea Party, only 35 percent said they believe blacks are hard-working, only 45 percent believe blacks are intelligent, and just 41 percent believe that they’re trustworthy.

Here’s what was not surprising: The results show that 88 percent of Tea Party supporters disapprove of Barack Obama’s job performance, that these supporters don’t like much of anything about him, but that they were also hard put to explain just what they disliked about him. Disapproval of the direction the country is headed in, of Obama’s job performance, of every aspect of Obama’s performance, and of Congress’ performance all polled over 90 percent among Tea Party supporters, and they were most likely to name the economy (23 percent) and jobs (22 percent) as the “most important problem facing the country today but they seem unclear as to whom they blame: 5 percent blame the Bush administration, 10 percent blame the Obama administration, 15 percent blame Wall Street and financial institutions, and 28 percent blame Congress. 88 percent said the stimulus had either made no difference or had made things worse. 93 percent chose “fairly bad” or “very bad” options to describe the condition of the economy and they were split at 42 percent each either saying the economy was staying the same or getting worse. 58 percent agreed that “America’s best years are behind us” on the availability of good jobs. 89 percent feel Obama has expanded government “too much” in “trying to solve economic problems facing the country.”

84 percent had a “not favorable” impression of Obama. Despite relative satisfaction (49 percent) with their own congressional Representatives, 94 percent advocate throwing most incumbent members of Congress out and 94 percent (without access to the original data, I can’t tell if it is the same 94 percent) said they trusted government to do the right thing only some of the time or never. 94 percent also said they were dissatisfied or angry about what was happening in Washington, D.C.; but of the 53 percent who described themselves as angry, they were again diffuse in their responses as to what they were most angry about.

61 percent blame the Obama administration or Congress for the budget deficit while only six percent blamed the Bush administration, five percent blamed “someone else,” and 16 percent chose some combination of these choices or all of them.

Presented with a long list of names, Tea Partiers appear to lack “admirable political figures.” 10 percent named Newt Gingrich, 20 percent chose “Other,” and 24 percent either didn’t answer or said they didn’t know. They were close to split in their opinions of John McCain, with 35 percent describing their opinions of him as favorable and 37 percent saying not favorable. 73 percent said Obama did not understand their needs and problems, 75 percent doubt he shares “the values most Americans try to live by,” 77 percent described him as very liberal, 92 percent believe he is moving the country towards socialism (49 percent understand that to mean government ownership), and 56 percent believe his policies favor the poor. 64 percent believe (incorrectly) he has “increased taxes for most Americans.” 63 percent rely on Fox News and 53 percent consider shows like those of Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity as news more than as entertainment.

73 percent believe “providing government benefits for poor people encourages them to remain poor.” 82 percent consider “illegal immigration” to be a serious problem. 51 percent doubt that global warming will have a serious impact now or in the future. 85 percent oppose a health insurance mandate even if financial aid is offered for those who can’t afford it and they oppose raising taxes even on households making more than $250,000 per year to pay for it. 74 percent believe the economy would have improved without the financial system bailout.

Suffice it to say, some of this is hard to reconcile this with previous depictions of the Tea Party. Some of the difference may lie here: while 50 percent said they had “heard or read [a lot] about the Tea Party movement,” 43 percent answered that they had only “heard or read [some] about the Tea Party movement.” Supposedly,

The latest New York Times/CBS News Poll is based on telephone interviews conducted April 5 through April 12 with 1,580 adults throughout the United States, including 881 who said they were “supporters of the Tea Party movement.”

The sample of land-line telephone exchanges called was randomly selected by a computer from a complete list of more than 69,000 active residential exchanges across the country. The exchanges were chosen so as to ensure that each region of the country was represented in proportion to its population.

Within each exchange, random digits were added to form a complete telephone number, thus permitting access to listed and unlisted numbers alike. Within each household, one adult was designated by a random procedure to be the respondent.

To increase coverage, this land-line sample was supplemented by respondents reached through random dialing of cellphone numbers. The two samples were then combined.

So if this is indeed a random sample, generalizable to the general population, what is the basis of their claim that only 18 percent of the general public support the Tea Party?

For purposes of analysis, people who said they supported the Tea Party movement were oversampled in this poll. Several thousand random phone numbers were screened for Tea Party supporters and qualifying adults were interviewed as part of the April national poll, along with callbacks to Tea Party supporters from a February poll, yielding a total of 881 respondents. They were weighted to their proper proportion of the population (about 18 percent) as determined in the February and April surveys.

There’s a level of abstraction here that arouses my suspicion. In my reviews of quantitative studies generally, I have seen so many statistical methods that I didn’t encounter in the two statistics classes I did take, that I can’t help but think of stereotypically teen-aged boys and their cars; as the boys might put in a particular fancy carburetor to achieve a certain level of performance, I can’t help but wonder if these researchers aren’t choosing methods to achieve certain results. They aren’t supposed to do that. Their methods should be appropriate to their problems rather than being tailored to produce particular solutions. But not being a statistician, while I may scrutinize everything else about a study, I can only trust that these researchers are doing what they should. Sometimes, I feel I should be less trusting. And sometimes, frankly, I wonder if researchers don’t outsmart themselves.

There are other eye-catching results in this survey: while 55 percent said the recession had been difficult, 70 percent “rate[d] the financial situation in [their] household[s]” as fairly good. 50 percent described themselves as middle class and, 58 percent expressed confidence they would remain in their present social class. Of those who have children, only 20 percent have children under eighteen and 53 percent have children over eighteen. 26 percent have no children at all. Of those who have children under 18, 65 percent said they were enrolled in public schools. 46 percent are in the 45-64 year old age group; 29 percent are over 64. 97 percent are registered to vote.

There are a few points I would suggest about these results:

  • There is likely a considerable difference between people who identify themselves as supporters of the Tea Party and those who are activists. 78 percent of these “supporters” had neither donated money nor participated in meetings or rallies. While previous New York Times coverage suggests that many activists are unemployed, 44 percent of their “supporters” in these results are not at all concerned that they or someone in their households would “be out of work and looking for a job.” Joan Walsh overlooks these discrepancies when she writes that she

    find[s] it galling when the wealthy, white Pat Buchanan (who by the way spent much of his adult life on government health insurance) lectures me about being “condescending” to the Tea Partiers, as though they’re a grass-roots uprising of the vulnerable against the elites. That’s garbage: They are a well-funded uprising of the elites against the vulnerable. And they’d be nowhere if their mission wasn’t largely supported by the top of corporate America (and the GOP shadow government in waiting).

  • While these results are in many ways consistent with those of an earlier Winston Group poll of Tea Partiers, the Winston Group found Tea Partiers slightly more concerned about unemployment than about the deficit. The New York Times/CBS News results indicate that 76 percent of Tea Party “supporters” prioritize reducing the budget deficit over job creation. But this may be a matter of phrasing and of a means to an end. The Winston Group said, “In the abstract, the deficit is a serious concern to Tea Party members. Yet when Tea Party members are asked to choose between two desirable outcomes — a balanced budget or a 5% unemployment rate — their choice is no different from the electorate as a whole.” 63 percent of respondents in the Winston Group survey preferred five percent unemployment to a balanced budget and the Group argues that Tea Partiers believe that deficit reduction and tax cuts for small businesses will create more jobs.

  • Walsh also notes that “the idea that the Obama administration’s policies somehow favor black people will come as a surprise to many in the black community who are concerned that the president hasn’t done enough to directly address the crisis of unemployment, especially among black men.” Here, she has a point.

But what I think will come back to haunt some pundits is a tendency to view the Tea Party movement monolithically. A lot of the incoherence in these results arises from a spectrum of views and we’re starting to see fault lines that may ultimately undermine the movement. We have a Tea Party movement in the military, an association with right wing militia, and a Tea Party-run state government. The culture divide I have associated with a split between conservatives and progressives appears in subdued form even among Tea Party supporters: Only 16 percent approve of legalized same sex marriage, but 41 percent would allow civil unions, while 40 percent opposed any legal recognition of same sex relationships. While 45 percent want abortion legal but with stricter limits, 32 percent support a ban. 40 percent support the Roe v. Wade decision while 53 percent consider it a “bad thing.” While only 16 percent said they never attend church, only 39 percent said they were born again or evangelical Christians; 58 percent said they were not. For now, 78 percent are more concerned about the economy than about social issues, but I’m guessing that might last only until Republicans regain power.

Electoral forecasts based on a special election in New York’s 23rd District last year appear especially problematic. A diverse view of the Tea Party movement suggests that plays like the campaign to unseat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid may backfire by splitting the anti-incumbent vote. For now, Reid remains clearly vulnerable. But an ABC News/Washington Post poll suggests the enthusiasm gap, indicating the likelihood of each party’s supporters to vote as affecting their respective party’s electoral chances, has narrowed considerably; while this improvement in Democratic Party fortunes looks to me like it might be a bounce from passage of health care legislation, I’m wondering if it might also reflect a reaction to increased mainstream media coverage of the Tea Party movement.

All I know for sure is that this year I’m glad I’m not in the election forecast business.

UPDATES: The New York Times has published a follow up to this survey which includes a few quotations from respondents. On a quantitative level, of course there’s very little new in it, but on a qualitative level, this article allows one to read the sentiments that lie behind these numbers.

In addition, a Pew survey shows widespread dissatisfaction with and distrust of government that appears to tilt in favor of Republicans.

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