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.