The following is the third of a multi-part series by Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor at The American Prospect, on the National Rifle Association’s exaggerated role in American politics.
In the first two installments in this series (see the first and second), we analyzed two widespread misconceptions about the power of the National Rifle Association, that its money and its endorsements have a substantial effect on the outcome of congressional elections. Today, we’ll look at the foundations of these myths: the mistaken reading of history that allows the NRA to continue to make legislators live in fear of taking on the gun lobby.
What Really Happened in 1994
All myths have a genesis story, and this one begins in the early 1990s. The first two years of Bill Clinton’s presidency saw an unusual number of controversial legislative battles – the gays-in-the-military debate resulting in the creation of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the 1993 budget with its upper-income tax increases, the unsuccessful attempt at health care reform, NAFTA, and the passage of an omnibus crime bill, which included a ban on the sale of assault weapons. When Republicans took control of both houses of Congress in the 1994 elections, the NRA immediately claimed credit for the GOP landslide, and many Democrats agreed. Bill Clinton himself validated the NRA’s argument in January 1995 when he told a reporter, “The fight for the assault-weapons ban cost 20 members their seats in Congress. The NRA is the reason Republicans control the House.”
Indeed, not a single incumbent Republican lost in 1994. But how much credit can the NRA claim for the GOP’s success? Studies by political scientists addressing this question produce the following conclusion: some, but nowhere near the Republicans’ margin of victory that year.
One study directly examined the effect of the NRA in that election. This research, by Christopher Kenny, Michael McBurnett, and David Bordua, examined NRA endorsements and election results in 1994 and 1996, and did find an impact of those endorsements – but determined that that impact was limited and highly conditional. Their results showed that an NRA endorsement helped Republican challengers to a small degree in 1994, but had almost no impact for Democrats who were endorsed, Republican incumbents who were endorsed, or any kind of candidate in 1996. These results, as well as the magnitude of the effect they found – about a 2-point boost for Republican challengers, but nothing for anyone else – were almost exactly what I found in my analysis of the 2004-2010 congressional elections.
As I explained in that analysis, there were few races in the last four congressional elections where such a boost from an NRA endorsement would have made a difference – only four races, in fact, out of the 1,038 times the NRA endorsed House candidates. In 1994, however, there were an unusual number of close races, and 12 Republican challengers won by a margin of 4 points or less. Of those, nine were endorsed by the NRA. The GOP needed a net gain of 41 seats to take control of the House, and their actual net gain on election night was 54 seats. So even if we were to attribute every last one of those nine victories to the NRA and assume that without the organization each race would have gone Democratic – an extremely generous assumption – the Republicans would still have gained 45 seats and won control of the House.
Other studies looked not at the NRA but at the effect of a vote in favor of the crime bill on incumbents’ chances of re-election, and found that if the crime bill had any effect on the 1994 election results, it was a relatively small one, only as one of many controversial votes. What happened in 1994, according to most of the political scientists who examined that election, was that the highly partisan politics of the 1992-1994 period left Democrats in Republican-leaning districts vulnerable. Congressional scholar Gary Jacobson examined roll-call votes and electoral outcomes and found that all the controversial bills together reduced Democratic incumbents’ vote share where they represented large number of Republicans. “Republicans won the House in 1994,” Jacobson wrote, “because an unusually large number of districts voted locally as they had been voting nationally,” which is to say they voted for Congress as they had for president. As another study put it, “The results are quite clear. Where Clinton ran poorly in 1992, Democratic incumbents with a pro-Clinton voting record in Congress were much more likely to be defeated [in 1994] than those with lower levels of presidential support.”
In other words, the best way to understand 1994 is in terms of partisanship, not in terms of the specifics of the gun issue, or any other one issue. To the extent a vote in favor of the crime bill made a difference to a Democratic incumbent’s election prospects, it was as one of a group of indicators – on issues like health care, gays in the military, and taxes – of whether the candidate was with or against his party in a year when that party did poorly in Republican areas. All these factors combined to create a wave election in which issues could not be separated from party. And if there was any single issue that did the most damage to Democrats that year, it was more likely the failed attempt at health care reform, according to post-election polling conducted by Stanley Greenberg, Clinton’s pollster at the time.
The 1994 election was a Republican wave, and as 2006 and 2010 demonstrated, wave elections can happen in a variety of contexts. In 2010, for instance, Republicans won even more seats than they did in 1994 – without any significant debate about guns. In fact, the only new laws about guns that took effect during Obama’s first two years expanded gun rights, allowing people to bring guns to national parks and on Amtrak.
By contrast, the 1994 congressional elections produced a confluence of circumstances conducive to maximum impact for the NRA: a recent controversy over guns around which they could organize; low overall turnout but high turnout among conservative voters; and anti-incumbent sentiment at a time when the House had been firmly in Democratic control for 40 years. These factors combined to give the NRA probably the best opportunity it would ever have to contribute to a Republican victory. And it did contribute. But it did not win the House for the GOP.
What the NRA Didn’t Do In 2000
In April 2002, NRA executive Wayne LaPierre stood before the group’s annual convention and proclaimed to the assembled members, “You are why Al Gore isn’t in the White House.” It was a story the NRA had been telling since the election, and it had plenty of believers, even among Democrats. Ever since, the 2000 election has been the second historical pillar on which the story of the NRA’s allegedly awesome power is built.
Any discussion of the 2000 election is complicated by the fact that the contest was so close that any of a multitude of factors could be described as decisive. If Ralph Nader had not run, Al Gore almost certainly would have won, not only in Florida but in New Hampshire as well, where George W. Bush beat Gore by 7,211 votes, and Nader garnered 22,198. If the Palm Beach ballot had been designed differently, Gore would have won. Bush’s final margin in Florida was a mere 537 votes, and one could probably find 537 left-handed Greek-American Red Sox fans in Florida who voted for Bush. But that hardly means that the “real” explanation for the outcome lies in the left-handed Greek-American Florida Red Sox fan vote.
And when one looks for actual evidence that the gun issue cost Gore more votes than it gained him, one comes up empty. Few scholars have performed a quantitative analysis of the role of guns in the vote of 2000, though one study examining a range of policy issues determined that the gun issue gave Gore a small advantage on election day. The argument from those who believe that the gun issue was decisive and worked against Gore usually amounts to little more than the fact that Gore lost some states where there are many pro-gun voters. This argument presumes that there were no areas in which Gore’s position on guns helped him win a state he might otherwise have lost. But Gore won swing states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota and Iowa largely on his strength among urban and suburban voters, who are more likely to support restrictions on guns.
If there is one state the proponents of the theory that guns delivered the White House to George Bush inevitably point to, it is Gore’s home state of Tennessee. After all, if Gore lost his home state, it must have had something to do with his position on guns. As the Politico wrote in 2008, “Since 2000, Democrats have made a conscious decision to avoid alienating gun owners and Second Amendment enthusiasts, as many in the party believe an NRA-stoked backlash cost Al Gore his home state of Tennessee.” This narrative is thus repeated by both Republicans and Democrats, and by the NRA itself.
Yet there are other more compelling explanations for the outcome in Tennessee, the simplest of which is a partisan one. Tennessee was in the midst of a larger trend in the South, where the state was growing more and more Republican over time. When Al Gore arrived in Congress in 1983, the House delegation he joined had six Democrats and three Republicans; after the 2000 election the margin was 5-4 in favor of Republicans, and today it is 7-2 Republican. The 2000 presidential election was not an anomaly, but rather part of a steady trend away from the Democratic party in Tennessee. Bill Clinton won there in 1996 by only 2.4 points, less than he had in 1992. Gore lost there by 3.9 points, John Kerry lost in 2004 by 14.3 points, and four years later Barack Obama lost by 15.1 points. The state is now considered safely in the Republican column for any presidential election.
There is also some more direct evidence about the effect of the gun issue. As part of a rolling cross-section survey that lasted the entire campaign, the National Annenberg Election Survey interviewed over 1,000 Tennesseans over the course of 2000, and among the questions they asked was whether respondents thought the federal government should do more or less about “restricting the kinds of guns people can buy.” Contrary to the picture of Tennessee as a state yearning to do away with gun laws and punishing Gore for his support of them, a full 60 percent responded that the government should do more, while 18 percent said it should do the same amount. Only 9 percent said the government should do less, and 12 percent said the government should have no restrictions at all.
In the end, differences on the gun issue were overwhelmed by a simple partisan calculation. According to the NAES data, both Gore and Bush got the support of just under 9 out of 10 voters from their respective parties. Gore’s problem in Tennessee wasn’t the gun issue, it was something much simpler: he needed more Democrats in a state that was trending Republican.
To reiterate: the National Rifle Association didn’t win Congress for the GOP in 1994, and it didn’t deliver the White House to George W. Bush in 2000. This historical discussion is important because the stories of 1994 and 2000 still play an important role in any debate about the NRA’s power. Suggest the possibility of a Democratic presidential candidate proposing to reign in gun sales, and someone will likely mention that it’s a bad idea, since Al Gore lost Tennessee in 2000 because of the gun issue. Advocate new national legislation on guns, and the idea that the NRA supposedly delivered Congress to the Republicans in 1994 will inevitably come up.
As often as they have been repeated, the actual evidence suggests that these ideas are false. A common theme recurs in analysis after analysis: what the NRA claims credit for usually turns out upon closer examination to be nothing more than elections in which Republicans do well. Every election follows a pattern. The NRA says this is the most important election ever, and mobilizes its resources to elect Republicans. If Republicans win, as they did in 1994 and 2000, the group says: See, we told you everything depends on us and our issue. If Democrats win, as they did in 2008 and 2006, the NRA is quiet. Any pro-gun victory is heralded as proof of the group’s power, yet the ample number of House and Senate candidates who win while touting their efforts to restrict guns are ignored (for instance, Democratic Congressman Gerry Connolly of Virginia said of his escape from the Republican wave of 2010, “I actually won re-election because of the gun issue”). And somehow, people like Barack Obama and Bill Clinton manage to get elected despite the NRA’s intense efforts to prevent them from doing so.
In the final installment of this series, we’ll examine gun ownership and opinions about guns in America today. As in so many other facets of this issue, what the NRA would like people to believe turns out to be a myth.