By David Hill - 12/09/09 12:15 AM EST
Enjoy yourselves, Tea Partyers. You are one-third of the way through your 15 months of fame and there are still reasons to party like it’s 1996. But take a few moments from your merriment to think about your next moves. Are you a political party or just a movement? Pondering that choice might force you to sober up to make some tough choices before finishing your journey.
Those choices are going to be made tougher by an incongruous poll released by the Rasmussen organization this week. Just when the consensus seemed to be emerging among Tea Partyers that the movement is just that, a movement, provocateur Scott Rasmussen gratuitously and self-servingly stirred the pot by asking a generic congressional ballot question about a hypothetical situation in which Tea Party nominees run in three-way races against Republicans and Democrats. Of course, he found that Tea Party candidates would overwhelm congressional Republicans, handing first place to the Democrats.
What’s a rational Tea Party organizer supposed to think?
It seems evident that the movement should formally become a party and nominate candidates. That appears to be what the topline numbers are screaming. But is it really all that clear? There are a few other numbers from this poll that Tea Party organizers should ponder.
First, only 27 percent of those polled say they have very closely followed “the Tea Party movement.” Even among those voters who later chose the Tea Party candidate, only 54 percent say they have followed the movement very closely. So the so-called choice of a Tea Party candidate was often made by self-confessed slackers. That’s hardly a solid foundation for optimism that the early choice of a Tea Party candidate will stick.
There are other signs that Rasmussen’s Tea Party ballot inflates the actual potential for real-world success in congressional races.
Crosstabs reveal that almost three in 10 voters who chose the Tea Party candidate also told the pollsters they were not sure that “an entirely new party is needed to represent the American people.”
Similarly, 16 percent of those who ostensibly voted for the Tea Party candidate are not sure, in response to a separate question, that they have a favorable impression of the Tea Party movement.
So there is room for speculation that a goodly share of the present Tea Party vote — say, 25 to 52 percent of it — is apt to abandon a third party once things percolate, leaving the insurgents closer to 12 to 17 percent in a three-way race, based on current polling. It’s a nice showing for a new party, but hardly competitive.
There are more interesting results buried deeper in the crosstabs. Sixty-one percent of voters who were undecided on the generic congressional ballot don’t believe we need a new party, so that places a low ceiling on the prospects for persuading many undecided voters to drink the Tea.
When Democrat voters are more interested than Republican voters in a new party, it’s not a favorable context for Tea Party success.
Polls like Rasmussen’s are rigged to fool the naïve.
They are designed to create a hypothetical reality that can probably never exist. Partisan pollsters are guilty of the same thing when they hype poll results implying that a strong incumbent is vulnerable to a challenge from a “Candidate B” who seems to posses all the right traits. Beware of pollsters bearing false gifts.
Hill has been a Republican pollster since 1984. This cycle he is polling for gubernatorial campaigns in four states.