The following is the first 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.
Last Sunday, Americans watching the Super Bowl saw New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and Boston mayor Tom Menino in an ad sponsored by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, arguing that “America must do more to keep guns out of the hands of criminals.” The next day, UCLA law professor Adam Winkler wrote an article for the Daily Beast, arguing that Democrats shouldn’t bring up the gun issue, lest the National Rifle Association and its congressional allies rise up and weaken gun laws further. Inevitably, when the issue of guns arises, the myth of the fearsomely potent NRA comes right along. But it is just that — a myth.
To determine just how powerful the NRA really is on election day, in recent months I assembled a database covering the last four federal elections: 2004, 2006, 2008, and 2010. These years cover two presidential and non-presidential years, as well as two significant Democratic victories and two significant Republican victories. I gathered data on the outcome of every House and Senate election, including the margins of victory, the money spent by each candidate, the partisan character of each district, and whether the NRA made an endorsement in the race and how much money they spent.
The conclusion to be drawn from these data will be surprising to many: The NRA has virtually no impact on congressional elections. The NRA endorsement, so coveted by so many politicians, is almost meaningless. Nor does the money the organization spends have any demonstrable impact on the outcome of races. In short, when it comes to elections, the NRA is a paper tiger.
In a series of posts for Think Progress beginning today, I’ll detail what the data on the NRA’s involvement in elections actually tells us, and what conclusions we can draw about the status of an issue that has been largely dormant in our politics in recent years. The results of this analysis include the following:
- NRA contributions to candidates have virtually no impact on the outcome of Congressional races.
- An NRA independent expenditure (IE) campaign does not improve a candidate’s chance of winning.
- The NRA’s endorsement, so eagerly sought by so many candidates, has almost no impact on the outcome of elections; the bulk of NRA endorsements go to incumbent Republicans with almost no chance of losing.
- Despite what the NRA has long claimed, it neither delivered Congress to the Republican party in 1994 nor delivered the White House to George W. Bush in 2000.
- Gun ownership in America has been slowly but steadily declining for decades.
- While support for “gun control” in the abstract has declined in recent years as the issue has been out of the spotlight, widespread support for specific measures to restrict gun sales remains as high as ever.
All of these facts contradict a conventional wisdom propagated by Democrats and Republicans alike, which says that any discussion of the possibility of restricting gun sales in any way will lead only to electoral catastrophe for Democrats, so formidable is the NRA’s power.
In today’s post, we’ll take up the first question, that of the electoral impact of the NRA’s money. The NRA is a large organization with millions of dollars at its disposal to play in elections, so it is natural to believe they must be getting results out of that spending. The truth, however, is that while the NRA spends a good deal of money in total, that money is spread over so many races — well over 200 House races alone every election — that it has little more than symbolic effect. The typical NRA contribution to a House candidate is around $2,500, including both primary and general election contributions. At a time when a candidate in a competitive House race can expect to spend at least a million dollars and sometimes much more, this amount is insignificant — on average, less than two-tenths of one percent of an NRA recipient’s budget comes from the group. That may be enough to keep the volunteers in donuts, but it won’t swing any races. Their median contribution to the far more expensive races for the Senate comes in under $5,000, representing an even smaller proportion of candidate spending.
Fair enough, one might say, but direct contributions to candidates are subject to strict limits. What about independent expenditure (IE) campaigns, where an organization sets up a separate entity to influence a race, and can spend much more? Does the NRA have its impact there?
The answer is no, because once again, though the NRA may spend a good deal of money in total, it spreads that money to multiple races across the country. In the last four elections, the median NRA House independent expenditure has spent less than $10,000, and the median Senate IE only around $30,000 — numbers too small to have a real impact.
All right, but is the organization spending token amounts on a large group of friendly candidates, but putting its real weight behind a few high-profile races and producing results? Yet again, the answer is no. In the last four elections, the NRA spent over $100,000 on an IE in 22 separate Senate races. The group’s favored candidate won 10 times, and lost 12 times. This mediocre won-lost record, however, tells only part of the story. Let’s take one example, the largest IE the NRA conducted over this period. In 2010, they spent $1.5 million on the 2010 Pennsylvania Senate race between Republican Pat Toomey and Democrat Joe Sestak. Toomey won by 2 points, but could the NRA claim credit? Toomey’s campaign spent just under $17 million, over twice as much as Sestak’s $7.5 million. The NRA was one of a remarkable 62 outside groups that poured a total of over $28 million into the Pennsylvania race. Put another way, in the NRA’s single largest independent expenditure over this period, the group accounted for less than 3 percent of the money spent in the race.
It would certainly be possible for the NRA to invest so much in one race that they could outstrip the candidates and other groups participating and determine the outcome; for instance, they could target one member of the House and spend, say, $10 million dollars to defeat him. But they have never done so. Instead, the group spreads its money around to hundreds of races across the country, meaning that no one race gets enough of an investment to determine the outcome. Yet Democrats continue to fear the NRA’s money.
Money is only part of the story, however. In the coming posts in this series I’ll detail the other ways the NRA’s electoral power is overstated, from its coveted but largely ineffectual endorsement, to the declining number of Americans it represents, to the historical myths about what the group has been able to accomplish in the past.