Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics: The Tea Party Is Far From Mainstream
The banner headline kicking around the political blogs today comes from Gallup: “Tea Partiers Are Fairly Mainstream in Their Demographics.” Gallup’s survey comes on the heals of another set of numbers published by the Winston group which also sparked headline from a number of major outlets. The Hill is carrying the Winston numbers under the headline “Survey: Four in 10 Tea Party members are Dems or independents” while the LA Times leads with “Myth-busting polls: Tea Party members are average Americans, 41% are Democrats, independents.”
Then there’s the oft-quoted Mark Twain: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
Behind the headlines, the numbers tell their own story. Gallup reports that 28% of Americans consider themselves to be supporters of the Tea Party. 26% oppose it and the remainder – a full 46% of the population – either doesn’t know or doesn’t care.
To put Gallup’s numbers another way, just six percent more Americans count themselves supporters of the Tea Party than approved of George W. Bush’s job as President on his last day in office. Winston reports that about 17% of Americans consider themselves to be Tea Party members, a figure within the margin of error for the percentage of Americans who claim to have seen a UFO.
Gallup also tells us that Tea Partiers are nearly twice as likely to be Republicans as the average American adult and four times less likely to be Democrats. The headline-statistic claiming that “41% are Democrats or Independents” derives from the Winston numbers but glosses over the distinction between the two. Combining the numbers differently, Winston could just as accurately state that just 13% of Tea Partiers are Democrats and the remaining 87% are either Republicans or Independents. Exactly how independent those “Independents” are is of some concern as well. Winston’s own trend-lines from 2002-2008 suggest that a lot of today’s independents are one-time Republicans who jumped ship during the Bush years. While it would be interesting to determine how many of the Tea Partiers were “Independents” before 2002, that information is not available.
In light of this, suggesting that the Tea Party is a somehow representative slice of the electorate seems either disingenuous or deliberately misleading. A group that is twice as conservative as the general population and under-represents a major party by a factor of four is not “average” or “mainstream;” it is, almost by definition, the radical fringe.