The National Rifle Association has long pushed the suggestion that their electoral efforts were responsible for both George W. Bush's victory in 2000 and Republicans winning control of Congress in 1994. As evidenced by NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre's recent speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, it's a key talking point cited as evidence that the NRA will be able to defeat President Obama in this year's presidential election as well as a cautionary tale for progressives not to push for gun violence prevention legislation.
Recently the narrative of the NRA's massive electoral power has extended beyond the usual gun lobby sounding boards. A recent article by UCLA constitutional law professor Adam Winkler in The Daily Beast that argued that the NRA's electoral strength would doom Obama should he propose even modest proposals and suggested the 1994 midterms elections were evidence that talking about gun violence prevention “will hurt Democrats all the way down the ballot.”
A December Bloomberg News report chronicling the NRA's massive fundraising apparatus similarly noted the belief that the NRA hurt Al Gore in 2000. The narrative was also reflected in a report by Reuters that reported that passing gun violence prevention measures, such as the 1994 assault weapons ban, leads to “sharp backlashes” from voters.
However, a detailed new analysis suggests that the NRA's past electoral impact is massively overblown.
The most recent installment of a Think Progress series examining the electoral strength of the NRA by American Prospect contributing editor Paul Waldman (who previously worked for Media Matters) debunks the long running narrative that the NRA had a huge impact on the 1994 and 2000 elections, calling this a “mistaken reading of history.” According to Waldman, “what the NRA claims credit for usually turns out upon closer examination to be nothing more than elections in which Republicans do well,” while when Democrats win, as they did in 2006 and 2008, “the NRA is quiet.”
Waldman writes that in neither the case of 1994 or 2000 is the evidence of NRA's overwhelming impact persuasive:
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.
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.
Waldman's examination of the 2000 election is supported by Robert Spitzer's analysis in The Politics of Gun Control, which noted that the NRA suffered several set backs in 2000:
The NRA took credit for Bush's razor-thin victory over Al Gore (Gore actually received 540,00 more popular votes nationwide then Bush, but Bush received 271 electoral votes to Gore's 267), pointing in particular to his wins in Arkansas, Tennessee and West Virginia. Yet Bush failed to win the large and key battleground states of Iowa, Michigan, New Mexico and Pennsylvania (the state with the second-largest NRA membership, next to Texas), and Wisconsin. Moreover, NRA-backed candidates lost in key U.S. Senate races, five of whom were incumbents, in Florida (Bill McCollum lost to Bill Nelson), Michigan (incumbent Spencer Abraham lost Debbie Stabenow), Minnesota (incumbent Rod Grams lost to Mark Dayton), Missouri (incumbent John Ashcroft lost to Jean Carhahan) and Washington State (Slade Gordon lost to Maria Cantwell). [The Politics of Gun Control 4th Edition Pg 106 -107]