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Media Bias, Political Science, and the Tea Party

- September 12, 2011

Washington Times, Sept. 4:

bq. Academics Dub Tea Partyers Devout, Racist

Washington Post, Sept. 10:

bq. What the Tea Party Is–And Isn’t

The former, written by Stephen Dinan, and the latter, written by Dan Balz, are about the same set of papers presented at the recent meeting of the American Political Science Association.  But Dinan and Balz describe the papers differently.  Take this paper by Alan Abramowitz.  Here is Dinan:

In another paper, Alan I. Abramowitz, a professor at Emory University, crunched the numbers from the American National Election Studies’ October 2010 pre-election survey and drew up a portrait of tea party voters that found they are more likely than other Republicans to be registered to vote, to have contacted a public official or to have donated to a campaign. They also are generally older, wealthier and more likely to be evangelical.

…Mr. Abramowitz also said they were more likely to harbor racial resentment, which he judged based on their answers to questions such as whether blacks could succeed as well as whites if they “would only try harder,” and whether they agreed with the statement that Irish, Italians and Jews overcame prejudice and “blacks should do the same without any special favors.”

Mr. Abramowitz said tea party supporters were substantially more likely than other voters to question how much effort black Americans are making to advance themselves, versus being held back by social factors.

“Tea Party supporters displayed high levels of racial resentment and held very negative opinions about President Obama, compared with the rest of the public and even other Republicans,” Mr. Abramowitz wrote. “In a multivariate analysis, racial resentment and dislike of Barack Obama, along with conservatism, emerged as the most important factors contributing to support for the Tea Party movement.”

And here is Balz:

That the tea party sprang to life during Obama’s presidency should have been less surprising than it was. According to Alan Abramowitz of Emory University, “The tea party movement can best be understood in the context of the long-term growth of partisan-ideological polarization within the American electorate and especially the growing conservatism of the activist base in the Republican Party.”

Over the past three decades, the size of the base within the party has grown significantly. At the same time, those activists were becoming more and more conservative in their views — and more and more hostile in their evaluations of the opposing party. When these activists were asked to rate Democratic presidential candidates on a thermometer scale of 1 to 100, the average fell “from a lukewarm 42 degrees in the late 1960s to a very chilly 26 degrees in the 2000s,” Abramowitz said.

Abramowitz notes that they are also much more conservative than the electorate at large and more conservative than Republicans who are not supporters of the movement. They are also more likely to have engaged in political activity — such as attending a rally, contacting an elected official — beyond simply voting. Almost nine in 10 tea party sympathizers identify with the Republican Party compared with 32 percent of non-supporters.

Both (Gary) Jacobson and Abramowitz also say that those who support the tea party movement show higher levels of racial resentment than do non-supporters and that they were more likely to say they disliked Obama.

There is a similar divergence in their discussion of this paper by Gary Jacobson.

Since we’ve been discussing media bias of late, and since this example concerned political science research, I thought it relevant.  There’s nothing categorically “wrong” in either article.  Abramowitz and Jacobson do use a measure of “racial resentment” to show that Tea Party supporters have higher levels of resentment than others.  At the same time, both are trying to situate the Tea Party in broader political currents that are not entirely about race, and in particular the partisan polarization that Abramowitz references.  Dinan focuses more on race.  Balz focuses more on partisan polarization.

As I’ve written before, I typically don’t believe strong claims about media bias, mainly because good systematic evidence of bias is in very short supply.  But this, to me, is what media bias looks like when it exists: subtle decisions about emphasis.

And as for political science and the Tea Party, my sense of the research is that racial resentment is one theme but by far not the dominant theme.  As Abramowitz notes, it is their general conservatism and their political activism that makes Tea Party identifiers politically relevant.  For discussion of their relevance to election outcomes and congressional voting behavior, see this paper by Jon Bond, Richard Fleisher, and Nathan Ilderton, as well as the research discussed in my earlier post.