Gun Control Vote Likely Won't Affect Midterms

Gun Control Vote Likely Won't Affect Midterms

By Sean Trende - April 22, 2013

In the wake of gun control’s stinging defeat on the Senate floor last week, proponents are consoling themselves with the fact that midterm elections are on the horizon. A common refrain is enunciated by the Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky: “You cannot oppose the will of 90 percent of the public and expect no consequences.”

Actually, I’d be more surprised if there were electoral consequences, for four reasons:

1) The trend lines don’t favor supporters of gun control.

Tomasky writes that he’s “more confident than ever that the NRA will never, ever be stronger in Washington than it was” last week. In a sense, this is a truism: It just defeated a measure that had 90 percent support (under some question wordings), and it is hard to imagine ever being stronger than that.

But even in the immediate aftermath of the Newtown shootings, support for stricter gun laws spiked to only 58 percent in Gallup’s polling. This level of support is actually only a hair higher than it was during the 2000s, and there are suggestions it has fallen since then. Support for tougher laws is still well below where it was in the 1990s, when it varied between 62 percent and 78 percent.

Or consider the question of whether there should be a ban on handguns. In 1959, 60 percent of Americans backed such a step, and even as late as 1991 support ranged in the high 30s or low 40s. In Gallup’s most recent poll, taken immediately post-Newtown, support was at 24 percent, the lowest on record. Support for a ban on assault rifles is likewise unchanged. Perhaps most surprisingly, the NRA’s favorable ratings remained above 50 percent, up from where they were in the 1990s.

It was commonplace at the beginning of the year to claim that Newtown changed everything on gun control. But the evidence for that is pretty thin. Overall, the long-term trend lines seemingly (and surprisingly) either favor opponents of gun control or show minor movement above the long-term trend, depending on how the questions are asked.

2) The issue is a low priority for most voters.

“Support/oppose” questions are critical for gauging public opinion, but they are only half of the story for electoral analysis. Issue salience is also critical. If people support something heavily, but don’t really care that much about it as an issue when pressed, then they’re unlikely to vote on the issue.

Put differently, it is better to have an energized minority on an issue than an apathetic majority. Take Obamacare. Supporters are quick to point out that the individual provisions of it poll pretty well. The problem is that relatively few Americans are all that energized about doing away with bans on pre-existing conditions, or allowing their 25-year-olds to stay on their health plans. I have Crohn’s disease, so the former might have some salience for me, but even that is mitigated by COBRA rules. For many other Americans, it’s a distant, largely hypothetical concern.

But if you tell Americans that they are going to be mandated to buy insurance, or that the price of their own health care plans might go up, or raise the specter of a government agency rationing care, they go ballistic. This is a large part of why the bill as a whole continues to poll poorly, even if many of its individual provisions are popular.

So it is with gun control. Regardless of the level of support for certain provisions, it isn’t an issue most Americans think much about. In early April, Gallup asked respondents what they thought the most pressing problems for the country were. The economy was the top choice, with 24 percent support. “Guns/gun control” was part of a four-way tie for seventh place (with immigration, education, and North Korea). This is the same share as in January.

On the other hand, the opponents of stricter gun control tend to be highly energized. Consider this amazing anecdote, relayed by National Journal’s Jill Lawrence: “During Biden’s 1996 campaign, [former Biden Chief of Staff Ted] Kaufman told me, a fellow from Biden’s office was going fishing in rural southern Delaware. He drove down a dirt road, got out, and walked another mile to a stream, ‘and some guy comes by and hands him an anti-Joe Biden leaflet from the NRA,’ Kaufman said. ‘These are incredibly dedicated folks.’ ”

Therein lies the rub. On Election Day, opponents of gun control are likely to go to the polls and vote on gun control. The other side is not. This is exactly why the assault weapons ban -- which passed the Senate in 1994 -- got only 40 votes this time around.

3) The 2014 elections don’t favor supporters of gun control.

The other problem for the “2014-as-payback” theory is geographic. Because of the geographic concentration of Democratic voters, 250 House districts have a Republican-leaning or even partisan voting index (in other words, tend to vote more Republican than the nation as a whole). Of these, 226 voted for Mitt Romney outright, even as he lost nationally by four points. In other words, the battle for control of the House will largely be fought on territory that is pretty favorable to Republicans. Overcoming this advantage will require a popular, high-salience issue for the Democrats, and as seen above, gun control isn’t it.

In the Senate, the picture is even worse. Only one Republican, Susan Collins of Maine, is running in a state the president carried. The only other Republican-held state that Romney won with less than 55 percent of the two-party vote is Georgia, where it is hard to imagine blowback over the gun control vote. South Carolina, Mississippi, and Texas are the only other states where Romney ran under 60 percent, and again it is hard to see the gun vote hurting Republicans there.

If anything, in an odd sort of way, the failure of gun control will help Democrats retain the Senate. Vulnerable senators in red states like Arkansas, Alaska and Montana got to cast votes against the administration, which they will doubtless remind voters about when their opponents try to link them to the president.

4) Voters mostly use shortcuts.

Finally, we need to remember that most Americans are relatively low-information voters who are unlikely to dig down into the details of policy papers and voting records. What they tend to do instead is use what political scientists call “shortcuts” to fill in a picture of what a candidate believes in.

For example, few voters vote primarily on the abortion issue (and those who do tend to be pro-life), but voters will use a pro-life stance to paint a broader picture of a politician as having ties to the religious right, or being opposed to broader women’s rights. Similarly, affirmative action doesn’t poll particularly well, and few politicians will actually run on the issue because it is low-salience and can paint a picture of someone who needlessly brings up a divisive racial issue.

My sense is the gun issue works the same way. While most voters are unlikely to punish a senator who supports, say, background checks, such support paints a broader picture of that senator as someone who possibly backs broader gun control, or who is liberal, or who supports an administration with mediocre national approval ratings. This is a real problem for proponents, and it isn’t likely to change anytime soon. 

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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