Who Are the Tea Partiers?

The tea party movement is still a bit enigmatic, and journalists are still in the process of mapping it and figuring out who, exactly, it is comprised of.

Adding to the collective body of knowledge about tea-partyism, Gallup released a poll today on the leanings and democraphics of poll respondents who say they support the tea party movement. Marc discussed tea party supporters' political identifications earlier, but I'm more concerned with their demographics.

According to Gallup, tea partiers are no different from the rest of the country. In terms of age, employment status, and educational background, the tea partiers are virtually the same as a cross-section of all U.S. adults. 5% fewer are black; 4% more are white. 6% fewer make under $30,000 per year; 5% more make over $50,000. Tea partiers are more likely to be men than women.

Here are two Gallup charts, lumped together:

Tea partiers Gallup.jpg

This set of data, taken from surveys of 1,033 adults total (28% of whom were tea party supporters), fights the perception of who the tea partiers are, at least as it's presented sometimes by left- and center-leaning (or non-leaning) media sources: that the tea partiers are a bunch of angry white people, or that they're the working-class whites who, liberals have long complained, vote against their interests by supporting Republicans. Or that a lot of them are unemployed, as were the jobless tea party activists interviewed by Kate Zernike for this New York Times piece.

But these results should come with a caveat: they are not the demographics of activists who regularly go to meetings hosted by "tea party" groups, nor are they the demographics of people who show up for tea party rallies.

They are the demographics of people who told Gallup they consider themselves to be a "supporter...of the tea party movement," as opposed to an "opponent," or "neither." It's one thing to tell a Gallup pollster that you support something; it's another to show up at a rally and hold a sign, or chant, or just be there in the crowd to oppose the agenda of President Obama and the TARP bailout initiated under President Bush. Gallup's poll is as much a test of the "Tea Party" brand as it is of the movement itself.

There may or may not be a sight divergence between the tea party movement's leaders and its rank-and-file participants.

Most of the organizers--i.e., the leaders of local tea party groups--I've talked to have been older, middle- and upper-middle-aged, and many of them (certainly a disproportionate amount, compared to the national population) have been small business owners. That's just the impression I get; it is informed, partly, by a meeting of tea party activists at the FreedomWorks office in Washington, DC, which reporters (including myself) were invited to attend in January, and obviously those in attendance were the organizers with the time and means to travel to DC for a weekend, which would logically filter them by economic status and job type, perhaps to a significant degree.

Some tea party organizers agree with my assessment, and others don't. At the FreedomWorks event in January, I asked a few of the organizers in attendance about this impression, and two of three verified that other organizers, in their esteem, tend to be business owners, or lawyers, or somehow economically established. One woman insisted that this isn't true.

"I would say that the majority of them are middle class, and I would say that the majority of them are either established in their career as an employee at a company or that they have had or are a business owner," Bob Porto, a tea party organizer from Arkansas, told me on the phone today.

Robin Stublen, who leads the Punta Gorda Tea Party in Florida and owns and operates a pest-control business--and who describes himself as anything but "upper-middle-class"--disagrees. Tea party organizers come from working-class backgrounds just as often, he says.

It would be an oversimplification to say that the tea party movement is, for instance, led by a bourgeouis elite and followed by the white working class. As the Gallup figures show, that impression is not completely accurate, and it short-changes the diversity--if not racial diversity, then diversity in age, employment status, and economic background--that exists in a disparate movement that's hard to map.

And, if my hunch/impression is actually true, it wouldn't be all that surprising: middle-aged-plus small business owners have some natural incentives to support fiscal-conservatism that includes lower taxes, and they typically have leadership skills. They're more invested in the nation's political and economic systems than are marginal voters in the liberal coalition.

But the demographics of the tea party movement are worth paying attention to, because they tell us something about the locus of anti-Obama-agenda, fiscal-conservative energy and enthusiasm--who is involved in its organization and sustenance, who is engaged enough to attend meetings and show up to rallies, and who, simply, sympathizes enough to identify with that sentiment when asked by pollsters.

It's an important question because it has to do with how people will vote, and what tea-partyism will become not just as a political movement, but as a social phenomenon--in what circles it will gain prominence, and what cultural connotations it will, in the long run, accrue.

It's the same question as: who was taken aback by the agenda of President Obama and the actions he, and President Bush, took to address the economic crisis? And who is energized enough to protest it?