In an op-ed article in the New York Times, Robert D. Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard, and David E. Campbell, a political scientist at Notre Dame, say they have collected data indicating that the tea party is "less popular than much maligned groups like 'atheists' and 'Muslims.'"
But Campbell says the tea party was really an afterthought in their research.
"We didn't go into this study to look at the tea party," Campbell said in an interview with The Ticket.
The professors were following up on research they conducted in 2006 and 2007 for their book "American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us" and decided to add the tea party and atheists to their list of survey queries. By going back to many of the same respondents, the professors gleaned several interesting facts about the tea party.
One of their more surprising findings, Campbell concedes, (and one drawing national attention) is that the tea party drew a lower approval rating than Muslims and atheists. That put the tea party below 23 other entries--including Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, Republicans and Democrats--that the professors included on their survey of "a representative sample of 3,000 Americans."
By examining which respondents became supporters of the tea party, Campbell and Putnam's survey "casts doubt on the tea party's 'origin story,' " they write in the Times--though, in fairness, it's perhaps difficult to generalize on the movement's origins from a poll sample of 3,000 respondents.
Early tea partiers were described as "nonpartisan political neophytes," Campbell and Putnam write, but their findings showed that tea partiers were "highly partisan Republicans" who were more likely than others to have contacted government officials.
"They are overwhelmingly white, but even compared to other white Republicans, they had a low regard for immigrants and blacks long before Barack Obama was president, and they still do," they went on.
In addition to being socially conservative, the study found a close tie between religion and the tea party, whose supporters seek out "deeply religious" elected officials.
"This helps to explain why candidates like Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry are just as much about the public presentation of themselves as religious people as fiscal conservatives," Campbell told The Ticket.
Campbell said Tuesday that he does not regard his research as politically motivated. "I don't have a particular dog in this or any other political fight," he said.
"We actually didn't go into this study primarily to look at the tea party," he told the Ticket. "The primary purpose of the study is to update what we learned about religion in America."