The NRA Is Still A Political “Paper Tiger”

Last week's House vote to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt over documents related to the Operation Fast and Furious scandal has brought back the media myth that the National Rifle Association (NRA) is a hugely-powerful organization that swings elections with its money and endorsements. But there's no evidence -- aside from the organization's media-abetted campaign to inflate its own influence -- that the NRA is an electoral force.

All 17 Democrats who voted to hold Holder in contempt received donations from the NRA. Additionally, the NRA, in an attempt to scare up more support for the contempt vote, announced that it would be scoring the vote for its candidate rating system. And based on the vote, the tactics seem to have worked, to some extent. As a result, some media coverage has predictably inflated the NRA's supposed electoral influence. But the vote is merely evidence that the NRA's campaign to portray itself as the most important lobbying group in the country has been successful.

In a post pondering “Why Is the NRA So Powerful?,” Slate's Brian Palmer reinforces many of the media's favorite myths about the NRA, writing that the group “is considered by many the most powerful lobbying group in the country, despite relatively modest financial resources and just 4 million members.” According to Palmer, the NRA “can reliably deliver votes.”

But in truth, the NRA can't “reliably deliver votes” -- far from it.

Writing at Think Progress, Paul Waldman, a contributing editor for The American Prospect (and former Media Matters staffer), looked into the NRA's expenditures and endorsements in the last four federal elections (2004, 2006, 2008, and 2010) and concluded that “the NRA is a paper tiger” that “has virtually no impact on congressional elections.” From Waldman's analysis: 

  • 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.

Similarly, public opinion on gun issues has remained quite static for nearly 40 years, even with increasingly shrill conspiracy-mongering from the NRA's leadership and its advocates.

While the Holder contempt vote may be evidence that the NRA can still effectively scare politicians, it doesn't change the group's apparent lack of impact in actual elections. The answer to Palmer's question, “Why Is the NRA So Powerful?” is, at least in part, because the media helps it pretend it is.