Tea Party Tea Leaves Show Murkiness of Polling: Michael Kinsley

Dec. 2 (Bloomberg) -- A year ago, 27 percent of those polled nationwide said they agreed with the Tea Party, and 22 percent said they disagreed. Last month, according to the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, it was the reverse: 27 percent said they disagreed with the Tea Party, and 20 percent agreed.

Actually, that’s not such a big deal, is it? A 5 to 7 percentage point swing over a year: Is this the stuff of counterrevolutions? If the Tea Party folks wish to feel a bit paranoid about the publicity this poll got, when it was released this week, they have some justification. It’s not that the news media is biased against the Tea Party. We love the Tea Party; it’s been good to us. However, we are biased in favor of change. The story must evolve, even if that means moving backward and repeating itself. Having built the Tea Party up, it is now our job to knock it down a peg or two. Occupiers, don’t gloat. You’re next.

In fact, what’s most impressive about these polls is that both a year ago and now more than half the population declined to express an opinion. They said they neither agreed nor disagreed with the Tea Party. As it happens, that is the right answer. No one could possibly have known whether he or she agreed with the Tea Party a year ago, and it’s not a lot easier now, because the Tea Party’s philosophy is largely unformed, except for a general sort of self-righteous bitterness about having a government.

The decline in the Tea Party’s popularity -- to the extent that it isn’t an invention of the news media, just as the explosive growth of the Tea Party was -- is caused by outbreaks of specificity among Tea Party leaders. As soon as they get specific, they invite opposition, because the numbers have to add up and they can’t.

Courage to Refuse

I salute anyone who says “don’t know” to a pollster. The best thing, of course, would be if every citizen took the time to develop an informed opinion on the issues of the day. But the second-best arrangement would be a population with the courage to refuse to express opinions on subjects they don’t know enough about. Or on subjects, such as the Tea Party, about which no thumbs-up-or-down answer is really possible.

The people I wonder about are the 5 percent or so who changed their minds about the Tea Party over the past year. On what basis did they reach the conclusion that the Tea Party was not their bag? Did they spend the year studying Tea Party manifestos, and then calculate the extent to which their own views aligned with the Tea Party’s? Or did they just happen to wake up feeling grumpier than they had felt the day the pollsters called a year ago?

This is why I don’t write columns about the merits of nuclear power or the future of the euro. Even though, like every columnist, I get paid for pretending to be omniscient, and am even given paid time to educate myself on topics I may be ignorant about, I give myself a few free passes. Otherwise, I might go mad with knowledge and find myself expelled from the garden, like Adam.

Unfortunately (at least for me and my colleagues), the pseudo-omniscient columnist is slowly being driven out of business by “crowd-sourcing.” An answer about the euro or nuclear power will emerge from the general conversation on the Web -- blogs, comments, Facebook, Twitter, Economist articles you used to read back when you had to pay for them, and so on. This method is at least as likely to get the answer right as a lone columnist pretending to know everything. In his classic “Public Opinion,” published in 1922, Walter Lippmann argued that technology was getting too complicated for most people to understand, and that experts were needed to make pivotal decisions. These days, the decisions are too complicated for the experts, but crowd-sourcing may come to the rescue.

Wisdom of Crowd

Crowd-sourcing is different than decision-by-opinion-poll because (if you’re a believer) it magically sucks real wisdom out of the crowd. Polls just count the votes. If I express an uninformed opinion about nuclear power in a column, I risk scorn and ridicule, whereas the typical voter, swaddled in anonymity, can answer a pollster without fear. Which many do. Support for nuclear power plummeted after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl decades ago, slowly climbed back, then plummeted again after the Fukushima disaster in March. This suggests that people want the advantages of nuclear power without the risks. This is an understandable position, but not a reasonable one.

In the fantasy world of opinion polls, though, anything is possible. Would you favor cuts in Social Security or Medicare? No. Would you favor a tax increase? No. Would you favor a balanced budget? Oh, yes indeed. By asking and reporting these questions and the answers people give, pollsters help to legitimize the view that such alchemy is possible.

The same Pew study quoted above also reports that since March support for the Republican Party has “declined substantially among people who live in Tea Party districts.” Back then -- all of nine months ago -- 55 percent had a favorable view of the Republicans and 39 percent had an unfavorable view. Now it’s 41 percent favorable and 48 percent unfavorable. Even as someone who has had an unfavorable view of the Republican Party all my life, I find this puzzling. How can so many people have changed their minds on such a basic question so quickly? Was it all those Republican debates that made people long for a none-of-the-above option? It’s a mystery. Not that I’m complaining.

(Michael Kinsley is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Michael Kinsley at

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Francis Wilkinson at

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