For more than a year now, pundits, politicians, and the public have been trying to understand the tea party. Yet, even after two nationwide reports released this week—a USA Today/Gallup poll and a New York Times/CBS News poll—the definition of a "tea partier" remains elusive. The Gallup findings say that tea-party members are more like the rest of the country than one might expect. Of the 28 percent of U.S. adults who call themselves supporters of the tea-party movement, the survey surmised that they skew right politically, but demographically and ideologically they are generally representative of the mainstream public. The New York Times’s article instead leads with its conclusion that tea-party members—18 percent of Americans—skew not only Republican, but mostly white, male, married, and older than 45.
Both the Gallup and NYT polls—reaching 1,033 and 1,580 American adults, respectively—were conducted over the phone. Gathering demographic data from those who merely identify themselves as supporters can limit the scope of the statistics, missing its catalyzing force: those active in the movement.
To find out who the typical tea-party member is, one needs to look at the rank and file that takes to the streets, carries colorful signs, and brings their message to the masses in public.
On tax day, hundreds of tea partiers took to a street in New York City near its main post office, where a line of people waited to file taxes. Party supporters gathered behind barricades with American flags, posters, and chants of "Throw the bums out!" to patriotic music and speakers such as Lou Dobbs.
Dobbs, from behind a podium on a stage constructed in the street, referred to the surveys. "You are scaring the hell out of them," he said to wild cheering. "You, my friends, are dangerous—and I love that about you."
But Gary Nielson, 56, in a cowboy hat and a bright yellow shirt emblazoned with "TeaParty365," identifying himself as a "protest volunteer," disagreed. He wore a jean jacket covered in patches, one a skull inflamed and the words, "Give 'em hell." He said the movement should not be considered scary. "We're trying to fix it; we're trying to make change," Nielson said. "We want a government where it benefits the American people; we're not violent people."
Nielson, a native New Yorker, has been on disability for 17 years and has major concerns over health care. After dropping out of high school, he went into construction. After he fell off a scaffold, Nielson explained, he badly damaged his heels, where he now has plastic and screws in his feet. "You can't do it, what they give me, I barely have enough to pay my bills," he said. "It shouldn't be that way, you know? The whole thing is that—that's why I am here, because the tea party is fighting for the people of this country."
Nielson describes himself as a Republican but "for the guy who does the right thing," and though he said that he had just joined the tea party the night before the protest, he has been following them closely, mainly watching Fox News (Bill O'Reilly in particular; "the way it's supposed to be told—he don't hold no punches.")
Charles Martellaro, 40, also a volunteer, stood to the side with Nielson. He is the project manager at a law firm, and because of his work has also lived in Singapore, Indonesia, and Syria. His family is Sicilian and Puerto Rican. He says he's always been conservative, starting with his first vote: Ronald Reagan for president. He describes his tea-party evolution as slow. Currently, Martellaro donates, volunteers, attends rallies, and subscribes to newsletters and listservs for the movement. "The thing that concerned me is the direction the government is going under Obama," he said. "People are beginning to lose their free will."
Supporters were mostly older, white males who vote Republican, watch Fox News, identify themselves as conservative, and express anger at the current government.
One of the woman in the crowd was Pat Evers, 72, who wore a red sweater and flag pin and sat on a fold-up chair near a metal barricade with a sign against her knees. She lives off her retirement from teaching, roughly $35,000 a year—a challenge, she says, especially in New York (she lives on Manhattan's expensive Upper East Side). She considers herself an independent but calls herself a conservative, and though she says she's been part of the tea-party movement since its beginnings more than a year ago, her involvement had so far been limited to attending the rally. "I think the average tea partier is somebody who wants change in the government, who feels the way I feel," she said, "They're not listening to the people, they're spending, and [Obama] has socialistic leanings."
Dan, 60, who declined to give his last name, works in law enforcement, and has for the past 38 years, bringing in about $80,000 annually. He gets his news in print because "nothing online is ever true." His main criticism of Obama is fiscal irresponsibility.
"I don't particularly care for massive government spending money they don't have," he said. "If I spend like that, I could go to jail for it."
Stacy Brenner, 26, a full-time nurse earning about $90,000 a year. She considers herself an independent, but usually votes Republican, though she said, "I'm pro-choice, so I can't really call myself a Republican." Brenner said she agrees with nearly everything the tea party advocates. "I believe in capitalism, not communism, sorry," she said.
Ellen Lang, 59, taking a break from the crowd in the doorway of a bar, is a professional opera singer at the Metropolitan Opera. She said she lived in a rent-controlled apartment and worked a number of jobs before "lucking into this one," where she earns more than $100,000 a year. "I took off tonight to be here," said Lang. "They're doing The Magic Flute right now, and I'm not in it."
The crowd here generally confirmed what the New York Times poll found. But only time will tell who stays in the movement for the long haul.