02/17/2010 05:31 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Re: Tea Party Polling

Does the just released CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll overstate "active support" for the Tea Party movement? They report "roughly 11 percent of all Americans say they have actively supported the tea party movement, either by donating money, attending a rally, or taking some other active step to support the movement." That number strikes Ben Smith as "surprisingly large," and Chris Bowers notes that respondents often exaggerate their true levels of activism. They are both right to caution us against interpreting these results too literally, but it's worthy considering how the CNN pollsters arrived at the 11% estimate and what it means.

In my column on polling on the Tea Party movement yesterday, I reported two findings from national polls released last week: The number of hard core Tea Party supporters is relatively small (somewhere in the mid-to-upper teens, depending on the measure), while 45% tell the Washington Post/ABC poll they at least "somewhat agree" with the Tea Party positions on issues.

The results of the CNN poll are broadly consistent:

  • The CNN poll finds 15% of adults say they "strongly support" the Tea Party, very similar to the 14% who told said they "strongly agree" with the Tea Party movement's positions on issues on the Post/ABC poll and slightly less than the 18% who say they consider themselves to be "supporters" of the movement on the Times/CBS poll.
  • CNN also finds a total of 35% who at least "moderately support the party. That is less than the 45% who say they agree with the Tea Party on issues in the Post/ABC post, but mostly because CNN offered the explicit choice "or don't you know enough about the Tea Party to say?

But the 11% statistic comes from three separate questions asked on the CNN survey.


The combine the results to find that a total of 11% of adults answer yes to any of the three questions. The number who say they have given money to the Tea Party movement is relatively small (2%). As Bowers guesses, a good chunk of the 11% -- probably about half -- comes from the 7% who say they "took any other active steps" to support the movement, which is obviously a pretty soft measure.

And Bowers is right that survey respondents tend to overstate all sorts of political participation, past voting, intent to vote, political giving, even how often they watch news broadcasts. So a literal interpretation of these statistics is not recommended. I would also caution against assuming that the Tea Party enthusiasts are unique on this score. I don't have a ready link, but political scientists have been studying vote over-reporting for decades and I do not recall reading about differences by political party or ideology.

The larger point here is that there is a relatively small number (10% to 20%) of Americans who express very strong sympathy to something called the Tea Party movement.    The recent polls, including this new one from CNN, tell us a great deal about who those Americans are and what they believe.