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May 04, 2013 2:00 PM Would a vote for gun control be political suicide for red state Dems?

By Kathleen Geier

The New York Times’ Thomas Edsall has written a fascinating piece that looks at a question I’ve been wondering about: is it really true that Democrats like Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Mark Begich of Alaska, Max Baucus of Montana, and Mark Pryor of Arkansas had to vote against the background check gun control bill? If they’d voted in favor, would they really risk losing their seats? It’s always terribly disappointing when red or purple state Dems sell out progressives on such issues. But at the same time, I wonder if my anger is misplaced. Senators representing states with a conservative electorate have to make some compromises, and a senator from Arkansas will inevitably vote differently than one from California, particularly on social issues. Still, I think red state Dems tend to vastly exaggerate the importance of certain votes and the potential reaction of the electorate to them. Edsall suggests that, at least where gun control is concerned, I am right.

His piece notes three crucial points:

— An array of polls, by liberal and conservative pollsters alike, show that universal background checks are overwhelmingly popular. For example, 84 percent of Alaska voters and 94 percent of North Dakotans support background checks.

— Second, elected officials across the board tend to view voters as being far more conservative than they actually are. According to one study:

a substantial and pervasive conservative bias in politicians’ estimates of district opinion. Politicians are much more likely to erroneously believe that their constituents are more conservative than they actually are than to erroneously believe that their constituents are more liberal than they actually are.

The study indicates that conservative politicians overestimate the conservative leanings of the electorate “by about 20 percentage points; liberals overestimate by about 10 points; and centrist Democrats like Heitkamp overestimate by about 15 points.”

— Finally, demographics mean that the make-up of both the country and the NRA are changing in ways that benefit gun control advocates. The angry old “Get off my lawn!” type white guys that tend to be the most hard-core gun nuts are dying off and becoming a much smaller share of the electorate.

The defeat of the background check bill was painful to many of us, but Edsall’s analysis suggests that there’s hope for the future. Gun control advocates say they plan to continue to keep the pressure on the Democrats who voted no. Kelly Ayotte’s no vote (she’s a NH Republican) already seems to be hurting her.

Still, I have to wonder how campaign finance relates to all of this. Many elected officials depend heavily the NRA for campaign funds, and they may be making the calculation that it’s in their self-interest to cast votes in favor of NRA positions, even if these positions are unpopular with the voters. In this context, I’m very curious to see if Michael Bloomberg’s gun control super PAC, Independence USA, will prove to be a political player anywhere near as powerful as the NRA. I certainly hope so. Because when I read about things like this I want to stab my eyes out.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

Comments

  • Joe Friday on May 04, 2013 2:56 PM:

    Once again, this misses the point.

    The vote was 54. If the vote had been 56, then which way the 4 Red-state Dems voted actually mattered. But the vote was 54, and even if those 4 had voted in favor, it would have come up short. If the vote was 56, then doing what's right for the country outweighs the politics, but with the vote at 54, all that remains is the politics.

    Why would you ask them to vote for something that was still going to fail ?

  • c u n d gulag on May 04, 2013 2:59 PM:

    I can understand Democratic politicians in conservative states taking less liberal positions on social issues.
    I don't like it.
    But I understand it.

    But with background checks, if confronted, a Red State Democratic politician should just say, "So, you're against background checks, right?
    So, if terrorists have figured out that our flights are now more secure, and so are our trains, what can they use today to terrorize the most amount of people?
    With all of our upgraded security, pretty much the only way to kill large amounts of people now, is either with pressure-cooker bombs, which aren't that easy to build, or with assault weapons, because we not only won't, but DON'T, do background checks for them.
    So, any terrorist who wants to easily kill people, and avoid potentially blowing themselves up trying to make bombs, can go to gun stores, or gun shows, and buy up all of the guns they want.
    THAT'S what you want?
    Ok.
    Good to know.
    Because that's what we have now!"

    Let's see what their answer is to that?

    How feckin' difficult is THAT?

    Democrats suck at messaging.
    Republicans always run circles around them.

  • c u n d gulag on May 04, 2013 3:08 PM:

    Joe Friday,
    Maybe so the Republicans, when they, as always, vote in unison, can't do their usual bit, where they say, "See, even X number of Democrats agree with us that this measure is too extreme."

    Sometimes, solidarity, especially on issues where the majority (especially an overwhelming one) of the opinions are clearly in the politicans favor, is not only smart, but in this case, shows some guts - a lot of people know that the NRA has a powerful lobby. They see it on issues like this, when politicians cave in.

    If you can't take a stand when 90% of the people tell you what they want, then when the hell will you?

  • Equal Opportunity Cynic on May 04, 2013 3:17 PM:

    cund: Exactly the right response to Joe Friday. Not to mention that the bill only "failed" in the Bizarro parlance of the media, where Republicans never bear responsibility for anything. The bill was filibustered, so that the majority supporting it was not allowed to vote. The bill did not fail.

  • tedb on May 04, 2013 3:23 PM:

    "Why would you ask them to vote for something that was still going to fail?"
    Um, because background checks are the correct social policy and preferred by most of their constituents. And Baucus is not even planning to run for reelection. This should have been an easy vote.
    I also don't follow your reasoning. Because the vote was 54 for the proposal, the four Democratic votes were critical since Biden could have provided the tie-breaking vote.

  • FlipYrWhig on May 04, 2013 4:23 PM:

    The thing is, IMHO, the way they see it is that they're preventing any campaign ad being made against them that depicts them as "against our Second Amendment rights." People in their states like background checks, but they also like the idea that they're "pro-2nd Amendment." I agree with c u n d about how it ought to be possible to negate that by saying that they support the Second Amendment but also support common-sense measures to increase gun safety, or some such thing. Doesn't seem that hard, agreed. But they don't like to risk it, probably because Everyone Knows that the Democrats hate guns, so to be elected in a red state your strategists will all tell you you'd better choose to do everything possible to demonstrate that you don't slavishly adhere to your own party's dogma. Because that's the meta-issue: to get elected as a Democrat in a state that skews Republican on presidential contests, you have to demonstrate that you're Not That Kind Of Democrat. Note how fiercely Elizabeth Colbert Busch is pushing that same button in her race.

  • Mimikatz on May 04, 2013 4:57 PM:

    During the '80s and into the '90s I worked with groups fighting for reproductive rights and gay rights. We tried to contribute to and/or endorse at least 1-2 Republicans partly because a fair part of our money came from well-off gay guys and also so we weren't identified just as Dem groups. But gradually the GOP became more and more conservative, and the liberal Repubs were driven out, so that strategy lost it's utility. Those two issues did get identified with the Dems and so did groups like Planned Parenthood, to the extent the Repubs tried to defund and undermine them. There is now not much point in Dems being anti-gay or anti-choice, unless they are theocratically inclined.

    Something of the same thing seems to be happening to the NRA. As guns become a tribal issue and the GOP gets further and further out, gun issues are going to get identified with the GOP and their position and the NRA's will get more extreme and it will not benefit Dems to stand with the NRA any more. This is particularly true for women, who overwhelmingly support Dems.

    So Heidi Heitkamp has come out in support of marriage equality, and I have no doubt she is as pro-choice as ND will stand. It is only a matter of time until she supports gun safety as well. It is now just a matter of finding the right formulation.

  • FlipYrWhig on May 04, 2013 5:46 PM:

    @ Mimikatz : She and others in a similar position just need to come up with the gun equivalent of "safe, legal, and rare." Basically, "guns should be as safe as they are legal." And know to stick to it, and win elections on it.

  • john sherman on May 04, 2013 6:27 PM:

    I live in Minnesota right across the Red River from Fargo, ND, so, except for Minnesota Public Radio (God love it), my local media is out of Fargo. Gunuts are like termites: the just keep gnawing. The letters column in the local paper and the a.m air waves are going to be filled with endless iterations of the craziest shit the NRA can imagine. The right has created a bunch of true believers who just won't let up.

  • jsjiowa on May 04, 2013 6:59 PM:

    I read an article about Heitkamp's vote, and she said the calls to her office were 7-1 against background checks. If her vote is going to change, she's going to have to get a different message from her constituents.

  • Sean Scallon on May 04, 2013 7:30 PM:

    I think what the Pryors and Heitkamps of the world have to realize is that politically motivated conservatives will find other issues to try and demonize them with. Voting against gun control measures is not going to make them any more popular with such groups than they already were. You're better off taking a chance with having the complete support of your base than to hope a vote here or there will neutralize your opposition. If they want you out, they'll find other means to do so.

  • Joe Friday on May 04, 2013 9:09 PM:

    Equal Opportunity Cynic,

    "The bill was filibustered, so that the majority supporting it was not allowed to vote. The bill did not fail."

    As much as I sympathize, in an era when the Republicans demand 60 votes on everything, the bill failed. I can't help it the damn MSM doesn't properly explain Republican obstructionism to the American people.

    ~~~

    tedb,

    "I also don't follow your reasoning. Because the vote was 54 for the proposal, the four Democratic votes were critical since Biden could have provided the tie-breaking vote."

    First, I'm fairly confident that as president of the U.S. Senate, Biden only gets to cast a vote if it's an equally divided vote (50-50), hence the "tie-breaker" label.

    Second, even if, for the sake of argument, he could have voted, I'm not following your math.

    It takes 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, and 54 + 4 + Biden = 59.

  • mfw13 on May 04, 2013 11:31 PM:

    The background checks bill would have done nothing to reduce gun violence given how watered down it already was.

    Given that there was no guarantee that it would have passed the House, there was no way that Heitkamp et al were going take the political risk of voting for it at that stage.

    Get a bill through the House first, and I'm sure they would have voted for it.

  • low-tech cyclist on May 05, 2013 7:20 AM:

    Kathleen:

    Second, elected officials across the board tend to view voters as being far more conservative than they actually are. According to one study...conservative politicians overestimate the conservative leanings of the electorate “by about 20 percentage points; liberals overestimate by about 10 points; and centrist Democrats like Heitkamp overestimate by about 15 points.”

    jsjiowa:

    I read an article about Heitkamp's vote, and she said the calls to her office were 7-1 against background checks. If her vote is going to change, she's going to have to get a different message from her constituents.

    There's a connection here. For whatever reason, conservatives frequently light up the phone lines of their Congresscritters, and we liberals hardly ever do that. Of course that's going to have an effect on how Congresscritters perceive their constituency.

  • low-tech cyclist on May 05, 2013 7:38 AM:

    What I've heard, FWIW (and please take this unsupported-by-cites recollection of what I think I've heard with the appropriate bag of salt) is that Congresscritters respond to calls and letters. Emails, a lot less so. And I have no idea about the effect of online petitions (like the one Organizing for Action is pushing right now), though I have a hard time believing they make that much difference.

    If I'm right, then there are really only two forms of activism that make a difference:

    1) contributing time and money to political campaigns, and
    2) calling and writing your Congresscritter.

    We do pretty well with #1, way less so with #2.

  • low-tech cyclist on May 05, 2013 7:49 AM:

    FWIW, I've got a theory about why conservatives call their Congresscritters in droves, and we don't.

    It's easy to see why they call their Congresscritters in droves. When Rush Limbaugh gets outraged about something on air, his listeners call, and it's reinforced by the knowledge that many others are calling about the same thing at the same time. Ditto for Pat Robertson or Glenn Beck or whoever, or if the NRA or the American Family Association blasts out an appeal to all its followers.

    But if someone's doing this on the left, I don't know who it would be. Sure, I could call my Congresscritter about whatever's getting under MY skin on a given day, but my political concerns are sufficiently eclectic that I'd probably be the only person calling my Congrsscritter about that concern all month, so the chances of its making a difference would be nil.

    I'm willing to call my Congresscritter if I've got any sense that others are calling about the same issue at roughly the same time. But if anyone's sending up a signal flare saying, "now is the time to call your Congresscritter about X," I'm missing it. And I have a feeling I'm far from the only one.

  • Jose Padilla on May 05, 2013 10:35 AM:

    Mr. Edsell is looking at constituents. The politicians are looking at who votes. Unfortunately, the two are not the same.