Why are NBC/WSJ polling about a political party that doesn't exist?

Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

This just seems dumb, but I'm sure we're going to see more of it in coming weeks and months: news orgs spending money to poll on the viability of Tea Party candidates and comparing the favorable ratings of the Tea Party vs. Democrats and Republicans.

The problem with that? The Tea Party does not exist, per se, which means there is no defined Tea Party platform, and there are no candidates. But hey, other than that it makes perfect sense to poll people, right?

Never underestimating the (theoretical) interest in a third party movement, I'm not surprised by the results of the NBC/WSJ poll, although I think everyone is supposed to be shocked that according to the NBC/WSJ data the Tea Party is more popular than Dems or GOP. (MSNBC's Mark Murray and Domenico Montanaro take the results very seriously and offer up no qualifications about the poll.) I'm not surprised because the Tea Party is a faceless movement that has doesn't actually stand for anything specific, so people can pretend it's whatever they want it to be. It's an utterly pointless polling exercise because people have an ingrained idea of who the Democrats are and what they stand for politically. Same with Republicans. But the non-existent Tea Party, for now, can be whatever voters want it to be.

But put a specific face on it (i.e. Sarah Palin or Dick Armey) and start pressing poll respondents to choose, and the results will change. Start spelling out what the supposed Tea Party is for and against, and the results with change. Because isn't it a fact of polling that when you give people the choice between an undefined blank slate (i.e. a Tea Party that doesn't actually exist) and ask them to pick between that and well-known entities with lots of political baggage, that people are likely to pick the blank slate? But once that blank slate becomes more defined, more and more people will peel away.

If there's truly a third party movement afoot and Democrats and Republicans are about to get steamrolled by it, so be it. It just seems odd for news ogs to poll people about a political party that doesn't actually exist.

UPDATED: This apples-to-oranges exercise is similar to the silly one Public Policy Polling engaged in last week when it asked people if they supported "the impeachment of President Obama," even though, y'know, there are no impeachment proceedings against President Obama. i.e. Why are firms suddenly polling about fictitious political scenarios?

UPDATED: Peter Hart at FAIR notes that according to the NBC/WSJ polling data, a large percentage of survey respondents had no idea what the Tea Party movement was, which raises doubts about how popular it really is. Plus, the description NBC/WSJ gave as part of its polling question portrayed the Tea party in a "remarkably upbeat" manner, says Hart.

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