Before Oakland: Occupy Wall Street vs. the Tea Party

Which movement is more popular, and what can protesters learn from the polling about each?

Occupy Oakland banner - AP Photo:Ben Margot - banner.jpg

Thanks to Occupy Wall Street and the tea party, America now has two national protest movements at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, exemplifying our frenetic political culture. At last, there are diametric outlets for all the angst.

The tea-party movement has undeniably died down. "We're kind of saturated [with calls for action] right now," a wearying Virginia activist told me in March at a sparsely attended rally on Capitol Hill. Nobody is in the streets shouting about Obama or health care right now (as far as I know), even if the broader bloc of "tea-party" voters, and the political groups that collect and donate money in their name, still enjoy tremendous sway over the direction of the Republican Party.

The movements are strikingly similar. Both are founded on simple, inclusive messages: OWS on wealth disparity, the tea party on spending and taxes. Both are characterized by emotions of outrage and indignation. And both have dealt with bad eggs and critics' eagerness to paint the movements accordingly: the tea party as racist, OWS as anti-Semitic.

Now, after protesters clashed with police after a city-wide strike and shut down the port of Oakland on Wednesday, OWS faces another challenge, one of perceived extremism, as tear gas and thwarted dockworkers generally made OWS look anti-commerce (as opposed to anti-one-percent) and fringe.

As Occupy Wall Street evolves -- and as public opinion evolves around it -- it will be impossible not to compare the two. So what do early polls tell us about how a movement can gain or lose support in its early stages?

If we're being competitive about it, the public likes Occupy Wall Street a shade more than it likes the tea party movement, according to a new Quinnipiac poll released on Thursday:

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...But less popular (in terms of support minus opposition) than the tea-party movement was in March 2009, a month after the movement's first nationwide day of protests, on Feb. 27 of that year:

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...And less popular than the tea-party movement was in April 2009, shortly after its massive nationwide Tax Day protests on April 15 of that year:

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The public is still making up its mind about Occupy Wall Street, as it was about the tea party in early 2009. Thursday's Quinnpiac poll showed opinion tilting against OWS -- by a margin of 39 percent to 30 percent -- but just as many people, 30 percent, said they don't know enough yet to make up their minds. Those numbers followed a late-October CBS poll showed roughly the inverse, with 25 percent in favor, 20 percent against, and 36 percent still undecided about what these progressive agitators are all about.

If Occupy Wall Street follows the tea party's track, it will get less popular over time. As more people learned about the tea-party movement, more found that they didn't like it. Quinnpiac's historical polling paints the picture:

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Democrats and independents killed the tea party's popularity. Initially, many of them hadn't heard enough about the movement to say how they felt about it. In March 2009, only 40 percent of Democrats and 19 percent of independents disapproved of the tea-party -- because most of them hadn't heard about it, 54 percent and 47 percent, respectively. By this week, 67 percent of Democrats and 45 percent of independents disapprove of the tea party.

Occupy Wall Street isn't off to a great start among independents, who view the movement mostly unfavorably. Its support among Democrats is strong, and probably has room to grow as people learn more.

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These opinions are subject to potentially drastic fluctuation after the mostly peaceful Oakland protest -- a success of planning and execution, it seemed -- ended badly in the wee hours of Thursday morning/Wednesday night.

It would be a surprise if either movement captured more than 33 percent support nationwide. They exist on the edges of political culture for a reason: Most people in the middle don't feel strongly enough to participate, leaving the hardened ideologues to craft the identity of the movement.

The tea party ran into problems when its fierce anti-Obama message failed to mesh with the president's nationwide support, which ranged from 40 percent to 50 percent, and as citizens came to care more about the economy than the deficit. The movement succeeded -- quite notably so -- in that it set Washington's agenda. Obama and congressional Republicans fought over spending this year more than anything else.

OWS has an advantage, in that most people agree with it already. People like taxing the rich -- and they have for some time. During December's fight over extending the Bush tax cuts, 62 percent said they opposed extending tax cuts for the nation's highest incomes. For OWS, success in the tea-party model would mean pressuring Washington until it passes higher income taxes on the rich, higher capital-gains taxes, and more banking regulations.

It's difficult to tell where opinion will go. To give a sense of how unstable initial affiliations are, consider this: Of the people who told Quinnipiac in March 2009 that they considered themselves members of the tea-party movement, 17 percent of those people said they had not heard enough about the movement to have an opinion of it. Go figure.

Image credit: Ben Margot/AP