Plenty of media assumptions have fed coverage of the Tea Party, but give Gallup credit — they’ve at least made the effort to find out who Tea Party activists are and what they think.  In a new poll released today, Gallup surveys Tea Party supporters, opponents, and neutrals in order to find out what issues matter most to them.  And despite the media’s portrayal of Tea Party activists as bigots, it turns out that there is little difference between all three groups on the importance of addressing discrimination (emphasis mine):

Self-described Tea Party supporters differ from those neutral or opposed to the movement on the issues they perceive as threats to the future of the United States, most notably federal government debt and the size and power of the federal government. They are essentially indistinguishable from those who do not support the Tea Party in their perceptions of unemployment and racial discrimination as future threats to the country.

Tea Party supporters’ heightened concerns about federal debt help make that issue the top perceived threat among all Americans. At the same time, the size and power of the federal government is only a middling concern among the general public.

Thirty percent of Americans identify as Tea Party supporters, 28% are opponents, and 36% are neutral to the movement, according to combined data from three USA Today/Gallup polls conducted in March, May, and June 2010.

You’d never know that from watching CNN or MSNBC coverage of the Tea Party movement.  News cameras search for the most provocative signs that they can find at rallies and then give viewers the impression that everyone at the rallies supports it.  In truth, as Gallup and Winston Group have repeatedly found, the Tea Party movement reflects the general American population very closely indeed.

The differences are worth noting, however.  On federal debt, 61% of Tea Party supporters consider it an “extremely serious threat,” as do 44% of neutrals.  For both groups, however, it is the top concern.  Among opponents, it ties for fifth place with terrorism.  Healthcare costs come in first for opponents, with 33% of them selecting it as an “extremely serious threat” to future American wellbeing.  It comes in tied for fifth with immigration among Tea Party supporters — but more of them select it as an extremely serious threat, at 41%.  Terrorism comes in at #2 for Tea Party supporters and neutrals, putting them essentially on the same page, and making a good argument that it isn’t the Tea Party that’s out of the mainstream, but its opponents.

One other characteristic in this poll deserves notice.  None of the opponent responses on any of these issues being an “extremely serious threat” to America’s future exceeds 33%, and only four issues get above 30%.  For Tea Party supporters, six of the ten issues get above 35%; among neutrals, seven of the ten issues get 30% or more.  Which of these groups will be more likely to feel an urgent need to get to the voting booth in the midterms, and what will be their priorities?

Update: If you’re following me on Twitter, I had an entertaining exchange with Oliver Willis.  By the end, he was muttering about tricorner hats and secret Muslims.