Over a year has passed since Rick Santelli's famed CNBC rant made waves in political circles, and the "Tea Party" movement still remains a vibrant and very controversial force in American politics.
Yet despite exhaustive discussion and coverage of the movement, there is still little consensus on what makes a Tea Party member. What does the movement look like? Who's in it? And, most of all, what do they want?
Since December, The Winston Group has conducted telephone surveys of thousands of registered voters and just this week released an analysis of its findings: that 17% of registered voters consider themselves part of the Tea Party movement, and that they - like voters overall - are deeply concerned about the economy and jobs as we head toward the 2010 election.
The conventional wisdom about the Tea Party has not yet settled on any one definitive portrayal of the movement, but the data tell a fascinating story - over 4 out of 10 self-identified Tea Party members aren't Republican, and a third don't consider themselves conservative. They tend to be older than the voters on the whole, tend to come from middle-income households, and are slightly more likely to be male than the overall electorate.
But what truly sets the Tea Party apart from even Republicans or conservatives broadly is its commitment to economic conservatism. Tea Party members, like voters overall, are very focused on the economy and jobs; some 36% say it is their top issue. Yet while only 6% of voters overall say that the national deficit and spending are their top issues, that number spikes to 21% among Tea Party members.
The Tea Party is a movement defined by its preference for fiscal restraint and low taxes. Presented with two competing proposals to create jobs, over four out of five Tea Party members say tax cuts for small business will create more jobs than increased government spending on infrastructure. When the options were expanded, tax cuts still were chosen as the top job creator, but are closely followed by "expanding development of all energy resources." Interestingly enough, the next runner up - "cracking down on illegal immigration" - was not notably more popular among Tea Party members (19%) than voters overall (16%).
When it comes down to it, the Tea Party does not appear to be focused on economic conservatism as an end in and of itself. When asked in the January survey if they favored "reducing unemployment to 5%" or balancing the budget, 63% chose reducing unemployment - a negligible difference from the 64% of voters overall who agree. Jobs are the goal - items like tax cuts and balanced budgets are a means to achieve that goal.
To be sure, no survey is perfect, and the data here can't address all questions about the nature of the Tea Party movement, nor - as with any poll - can the results be applied as fact to each and every person calling themselves a member of the movement.
Yet the survey results paint a picture of a movement that is experiencing many of the same anxieties as voters overall - concern about how America's economy can get back on track, and concern about how to get Americans back to work. These aren't partisan or ideological concerns; survey after survey has shown the economy to weigh heavy on the minds of voters of all affiliations. What sets the Tea Party apart is its belief that the policies of economic conservatism are the best way to generate the outcome that most Americans desire - a stronger economy, and most of all, jobs.