Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Tea Party Revival? Two New Polls Provide Conflicting Results in the Wake of the IRS Scandal

The Tea Party was the runner-up 'Person of the Year' for Time Magazine in 2010. Tea Party members, politicians, and activists are pictured above, from left: Sharron Angle, William Temple, Scott Brown, Sal Russo, Rick Santelli, Glenn Beck, Rand Paul, Jim Demint, Sarah Palin (center), Ron Paul, Dick Armey, Stephen Broden, Michele Bachmann, Christine O'Donnell, & Amy Kremer (far right). Illustration courtesy of Finlay Mackay

Though never known for their immense popularity with the public as a whole, the Tea Party has experienced a ratings-dive since their hey-day before the 2010 midterm election. Fortunately for them, there is some new poll data that indicates the recent IRS scandal may be providing the movement with a sympathy bump in terms of public perception.

In 2010, pollsters found the anti-tax, anti-spending conservative group with an overall 33/34% favorable/unfavorable rating, while roughly the same portion of Americans either had no opinion, or refused to state their opinion. At the same time, 29% said they supported the movement, while 26% opposed it.

Yet since those days when the stock market rose and fell in wild swings in a single day, when the unemployment rate peaked at a 10%, when wages plunged to a 20-year year low, public sentiment soured on the always alluring, yet always divisive grassroots movement.

Following the Republican's 2010 midterm landslide, the Tea Party saw their evenly-divided favorability ratings drop to a decidedly negative 30/43% average. And though polling has been somewhat limited since the 2012 election, they've averaged an even less stellar 32/48% in the 6 months since November. Meanwhile, the margin of those saying they "support" rather than "oppose" the movement dropped 6 points since 2010.

But in two surveys out after news broke on May 10th that the IRS targeted conservative groups, it appears the Tea Party is receiving a bit of a sympathy boost as a result of the perceived slight.

CNN is the first to release poll findings showing the Tea Party with a notable gain in public perception. While a plurality of Americans still say they view the Tea Party unfavorably (45%), that number is down from 48% in CNN's poll two months earlier. The number of Americans viewing the Tea Party favorably has seen an even bigger jump, with 37% now viewing the group favorably, vs. 28% in March. Most of that improvement is seen among Democrats and Independents, not Republicans, oddly enough.

ABC/Washington Post joined the fray yesterday with another survey showing the often demonized Tea Party with a respectable 40/43 favorability rating.

But does polling truly indicate an emerging Tea Party resurgence? 

It depends on which of the two post-IRS scandal pollsters you believe most: CNN or ABC/Washington Post.

If you believe CNN, there is some definite movement in favor of the Tea Party as compared to two months ago. The chart below looks at every CNN survey on the Tea Party's favorability rating since 2011, immediately following their takeover of the House of Representatives:

The Tea Party's favorable/unfavorable rating has improved a net 12 points since March 2013, the best numbers measured by CNN since 2010.

But while the new ABC/Washington Post poll numbers may sound like an improvement for the GOP, they're actually little-changed from the last survey measuring support/opposition for the Tea Party:

In fact, support for the Tea Party is slightly down from ABC/WaPo's last survey 8 months ago, in spite of the recent IRS scandal.

Two caveats apply regarding the ABC/WaPo poll: 1) They have not surveyed support/opposition to the Tea Party for about 1 year until recently, which makes it hard to determine whether or not their recent 40/43% supportive finding is an increase or decrease from recent public sentiment. Though at least in terms of the numbers we have to work with, it appears Tea Party support is DOWN from their last poll before the 2012 election. 2) Question wording matters, and asking a poll respondent whether they view the Tea Party favorably or unfavorably, or whether they support or oppose them, can produce seemingly conflicting trends. Evidence of this can be seen in the two survey's topline results; poll respondents seem much more willing to rate the Tea Party unfavorable while also saying they support the group, as opposed to rating the group favorably, OR saying they oppose it - in other words, voters are more evenly split between the support/oppose question than they are the favorable/unfavorable question.

In the end, the very limited post-IRS scandal polling we have suggests that Americans are viewing the Tea Party more favorably and less unfavorably than they did prior to May 10th, the day the IRS scandal broke. But at the same time, there is no positive movement in the direction of those that support the group rather than oppose it.

It's often an easy excuse in poll analysis to say it will take more data to see whether or not disdain for the IRS has created a lasting improvement in perceptions of the Tea Party, but that is absolutely the case here. The Tea Party will need more than a single CNN data-point before anticipating a 2010-like renewal.

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