The tea party movement has been growing less popular over the past year. (Ben Sklar/GETTY IMAGES)

In the survey, 47 percent of Americans say they see the tea party in an unfavorable light while 32 percent regard the movement favorably.

That makes the tea party about as unpopular as the Democratic and Republican parties.

(The CNN numbers track closely with what the Post found in its most recent poll.)

What explains the tea party’s rising unpopularity?

Let’s first take a step back and look at the broader picture on the the tea party’s favorable and unfavorable ratings.

A graph by the New York Times’ Nate Silver shows that the tea party has been growing steadily less popular over the past year, while its favorability ratings have stayed steady in the low 30s.

CNN polling director Keating Holland pointed out that the rise in tea party unfavorability in his poll came primarily among people making less than $50,000 a year.

“It’s possible the drop among lower income Americans is a reaction to the tea party’s push for large cuts in government programs that help lower-income Americans, although there are certainly other factors at work,” Holland explained.

It also could be that as the tea party has become better known and better defined, some people who initially said they liked the movement even though they knew little about it have grown disenchanted as they have learned more.

The growing unpopularity of the tea party with the public puts Republicans in a tough political spot.

On the one hand, the tea party retains considerable power within the GOP — one needs only look at the results from the 2010 Senate primaries for proof of that. On the other, aligning too closely with the tea party creates the possibility of running afoul of some significant chunk of people outside of the Republican base.

That choice is playing out in real time right now on Capitol Hill as House Republican leaders have begun to court moderate Democrats for a budget compromise bill under the theory that anything short of the $61 billion package of cuts passed by the House will not pass muster with tea party-aligned members.

Should such a deal be cut, it’s a near-certainty that many tea party leaders will balk, arguing that the party is abandoning (again) its core principles. “Unless the Tea Party stays active, we will wilt,” Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a leader within the movement, said Tuesday.

With the tea party coming to Washington for a major rally on Thursday, Republicans leaders will come face to face with the tough decision before them. Side with the tea party and risk tying yourself to a group that is not broadly popular with the public. Go against them and risk alienating the most active and passionate members of the party’s base, the men and women most responsible for helping deliver the GOP across-the-board gains in 2010.

The clock is ticking, literally, as the government will shut down April 9 without some sort of budget deal.