3 Takeaways from the Tax Day Tea Party Poll

Public opinion polling is something between a dark art and a Rorschach test. Sometimes it can reveal significant and real trends. But too often the questions are leading, offer false choices or ask respondents to make enormous statements while withholding information or context. Consider that disclosure for this and all public polling analysis.

This New York Times poll comparing the Tea Party movement to the general public is timed for Tax Day, but the main lessons have little to do with taxes. They have to do with spending, and how Americans -- all of us -- understand and misunderstand spending. Here are three takeaways from the poll.

1. The Tea Partiers don't appear to be as uniformly anti-tax as I painted them yesterday. Despite the "Taxed Enough Already" signs and the many vague and often contradictory allusions to their gratuitous tax burden, the poll suggests that half of Tea Party supporters thinks that their taxes are fair. Their insistence on reform falls mostly on the spending side: they're against the stimulus, against the bailouts, against more packages aimed at job creation. Ninety-two percent call for a smaller government with fewer services.

2. The whole country (but the Tea Party, in particular) struggles and will increasingly struggle to reconcile our desire for small government with our affection for entitlement programs. Three-fourths of the country and 62% of Tea Partiers think that Medicare and Social Security are "worth the costs." In 2010, those programs will account for about 40% of government spending. Defense is 20%. Almost another 10% percent is mandatory interest on the debt. You tag 70% of the budget as untouchable and suddenly the prospect of delivering a smaller government becomes a lot more challenging.

3. Is the stimulus failing, politically? Forget the tea partiers. More than 60% of the general public thinks the stimulus did nothing, or hurt. This is extraordinary. In the quarter when the stimulus passed, the economy was falling by 6% annualized and analysts were worried the stock market could hit 5000. In the last quarter of 2009, GDP was growing by 5.6%, and the stock market recently topped 11,000. So why do six out of ten Americans think the stimulus did nothing? It's got to be the jobs.

This highlights an important point that Marc Ambinder made. It's interesting that Americans feel so down the economy while journalists feel so high on the recovery. Substantively, it's up for debate. Politically, it just is. Americans think that the central tenant of the Obama administration's economic policy is not working or worse. Democrats can't debate that feeling. They just need to fix it, or hope the economy fixes it for them.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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