The biggest (though not the only) limit to last week's CBS/New York Times Tea Party survey is that it didn't distinguish the movement's armchair sympathizers from the people who actually go out and join the rallies. Politico and Edison Research have filled part of that gap by polling the participants at the Tax Day Tea Party on the National Mall. They found
a distinct fault line that runs through the tea party activist base, characterized by two wings led by the politicians who ranked highest when respondents were asked who "best exemplifies the goals of the tea party movement" -- former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), a former GOP presidential candidate.
Palin, who topped the list with 15 percent, speaks for the 43 percent of those polled expressing the distinctly conservative view that government does too much, while also saying that it needs to promote traditional values.
Paul's thinking is reflected by an almost identical 42 percent who said government does too much but should not try to promote any particular set of values -- the hallmarks of libertarians. He came in second to Palin with 12 percent.
When asked to choose from a list of candidates for president in 2012, Palin and Paul also finished one-two -- with Palin at 15 percent and Paul at 14 percent.
In general, those who turned out for the April 15 event tended to be less culturally conservative than national Republicans.
Asked to rate their level of anger about 22 issues on a scale of one (not angry at all) to five (extremely angry), the issue that drew the most anger: the growing national debt. The least: courts granting same-sex couples the right to marry. Twenty-four percent said they're "not at all" upset about gay marriage.
An important caveat: One Tea Party rally, even a national one, is not necessarily representative of every Tea Party rally. Dave Weigel notes that Ron Paul "was the most prominent speaker whose involvement in the rally was announced beforehand," which was sure to increase the number of Paul fans in attendance. There are regional differences as well, and I'd love to see similar surveys conducted at other protests around the country; I suspect the Tea Parties in Utah will be more Palinite in orientation, while a New Hampshire demo is likely to be more Paulian. Finally, it's important to remember that there are gradations of opinion here, with Paul and Palin serving as symbols representing the libertarian and conservative ends of the spectrum but with many ralliers falling somewhere in-between.
All that said: Even if the proportions in this poll turn out to be atypical, all the evidence I've seen suggests that the categories it identifies are the strongest segments within the movement. If there's a lesson here for outside observers, it's that it's unwise to generalize about Tea Party opinion as though the protesters have identical platforms. There is more than one current in this sea.