To put the matter bluntly, the polling on the teabagger "movement" is a complete mess.
The demographics and the views of the "movement" have been the subjects of a number of surveys so far this year. In late February, there was a report from the Winston Group (a Republican firm), followed, in March, by the USA Today/Gallup poll and the Quinnipiac poll. A CBS News/New York Times poll out this week raised the issue again, and has provoked new conversation on the matter. The general consensus of the polling is that the "movement" is, from a demographic standpoint, not that different from America, while its views are often a good deal more conservative than those of the public.
The problem, underscored by a so-far-entirely-overlooked portion of the newest poll, is that none of these have actually surveyed the teabagger "movement."
They've purported to do so, of course, and the findings have been used by commentators of all political stripes as a basis for analysis of that "movement." I've even used them myself in a few postings to various boards. A closer look at the accumulated data, however, suggests that nearly all of it is essentially worthless insofar as providing a portrait of the actual "movement" is concerned.
Here's why: None of the pollsters bother to use a proper working definition of a member of the "movement." It seems like an obvious first step, if you want to survey those involved. What does it mean to be a part of it? What defines a "Tea Partier?" Obvious though this may be, no one sets any reasonable guidelines, and without them, it's impossible to get meaningful results--all one gets is garbage.
Here's how each of the pollsters who have worked the question went about establishing their sample: Quinnipiac asks respondents if they are "part of the Tea Party movement," without further elaboration. This is the same wording reported by the Winston Group. Their results were, respectively, 13% and 17%. USA Today/Gallup settled the matter by asking if respondents considered themselves "supporters of the Tea Party movement," wording that ropes in a potentially much broader group of people, and they get a much broader answer; 28% so identify themselves. The CBS News/New York Times poll picked their representative group by asking respondents if they were "Tea Party supporters," the same sort of broader wording, but this time, it drew a much narrower response; 18% so identified themselves.
All of the reported information on the demographics and views of the "movement" were derived from these samples. Even the smallest of them, though--13% from Quinnipiac, nearly 1 in every 8 Americans--is obviously wildly inflated (and the largest--28%--ludicrous). The teabagger "movement" has never demonstrated anything remotely approximating that sort of muscle.
In other words, a lot of people are clearly identifying themselves with the "movement" who aren't a part of it in any meaningful way, and it's information on their views and demographics, rather than those of the actual teabaggers, that is reflected in the polls that use them as a sample.
Part of this identification problem is no doubt a consequence of the continuing fall-out from the disintegration of the Republican party in 2008. As this hit rock-bottom last year, large numbers of Republicans had stopped calling themselves "Republicans"--identification with the party hit its lowest point in the history of polling. Those people didn't disappear from the face of the earth. They just started calling themselves "independents." The ranks of the "independents" swelled, and, in last year's elections, all the talk was about how "independents" had suddenly shifted rightward in their politics. They hadn't. There were just a lot of Republicans who'd taken to calling themselves "independents."
Like "independent," the "Tea Party" label has, to an extent, become a substitute for "Republican" by Republicans who don't like to call themselves that at the moment.
The actual teabagger "movement" is, as it has always been, an astroturf project, a tiny group of more-angry-than-thoughtful conservatives whipped into a persistent lather by a well-financed campaign of misinformation and sent into the street to provide the appearance of a mass movement. The wildly inflated numbers are both a part of this project's goal, and a mark of its success.
A part of the new CBS News/New York Times poll that has received no notice gets to the heart of the matter: Of those who identified themselves as "Tea Party supporters," only 20% said they'd actually given money to a Tea Party org or attended a Tea Party event, or both. That equals 4% of the general public (a number that is almost certainly also wildly inflated, but I'll set that aside for now). This wording has to be quoted to be believed: "More than three in four Tea Party supporters (78 percent) have never attended a rally or donated to a group; most have also not visited a Tea Party Web site."
In other words, they aren't a part of the Tea Party "movement" at all. Their "participation" amounts to something like nodding their heads in agreement when some Fox News host praises the teabaggers.
The poll had another noteworthy element: it asked some questions of that small group who were actual teabaggers, somewhat cluelessly identifying them as "Tea Party activists," to differentiate them from "Tea Party supporters." Unfortunately, the pollsters treated the entire exercise as if it was a sidebar. In a move that gives new meaning to "missing the forest for the trees," their questions of the "activists" were only aimed at providing a contrast to the "supporters" who were the central focus. Actual teabaggers, the questions reveal, are angrier and gloomier than the already-angry-and-gloomy "supporters," they think even more highly of cretinous clowns like Sarah Palin and Glenn Back, even more of them think the taxes they pay are "unfair," and even more of them get most of their political information from Fox News.
It seems incredible that, after all this time and all the noise the teabaggers have made, this slim set of facts appears to represents the first real polling data we've gotten on those who comprise the actual "movement." It includes no demographic information, precious little systematic documentation of the teabaggers' views, and is nothing more than a sidebar to the farcical sideshow that is the larger poll. The larger poll that gets the headlines, the one that is mischaracterized as a snapshot of the "movement." Pollsters need to seriously work on improving the shoddy product they've been offering on this matter, and commentators need to stop presenting the teabagger "movement" as accurately represented by it.
UPDATE: The teabaggers invent and circulate wildly inflated attendance figures for every major teabagger event. This is standard operating procedure for astroturf, where, again, the goal is to present the appearance of a much larger movement than exists. Wednesday's "big" rally in Boston, at which Sarah Palin appeared, drew somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 people. As Eric Boehlert wrote, over at Media Matters, "the Boston metro has a population of about 5 million people. And there may have been some high school football games played in Massachusetts last year that attracted a bigger crowd than Palin's rally." The organizers of the event promptly took the high-end estimate and doubled it, claiming there were 10,000 attendees, and the right-wing blogosphere and talk radio has further inflated it to 13,000-16,000 attendees. Not really directly relevant to the question of polling, but par for the course, when it comes to teabaggers.