By Steven Hill and Robert Richie, The Atlantic, December 2012
Hint: It’s not the NRA or a gun-loving culture.
The horrific tragedy at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Conn., is the latest grisly episode in what has become a muted debate in the United States: what to do about gun violence and well-armed mass murderers. But we will make a prediction: Even in the face of this national tragedy, President Obama will have little success enacting substantive gun control.
Here’s why: Obama can read the political map as well as anyone, and he knows that, just as in the past after previous brutal tragedies, the politics of gun control rest on complicated terrain. Many gun control advocates blame the lack of policy action on America’s gun-loving culture and the influence of the National Rifle Association (NRA), but that’s too simplistic. Already in the wake of the Newtown carnage we have seen a slew of pundits drawing the wrong conclusions, just as they have after previous tragedies.
Sure, Americans like their guns more than other nations, but polls often have shown a majority of Americans wanting more gun control, with two-thirds calling for more regulation following the Columbine massacre in 1999. But the political system – including the Democratic Party — has failed to respond. And it’s not because Democrats and Obama are afraid of the NRA’s deep pockets, as so many pundits are wrongly concluding. Quite the contrary, the NRA has money because it is powerful, not the other way around. And the NRA is powerful because it is clever at working the clunky architecture of our political system, which gives immense clout to a tiny slice of swing voters in a handful of congressional districts.
To understand the importance of this factor, Obama and gun control advocates have to grapple with the fact that Mitt Romney carried 228 out of 435 House districts (52.4 percent) despite losing the national popular vote to Obama by 4 points. According to an analysis by FairVote, the median House district (the 218th) is one that leans 52 percent Republican. Cook Political Report analysis found that of the 234 Republicans elected to the 435-seat U.S. House in November, fully 219 came from districts that were carried by Mitt Romney. That means that these Republicans don’t need to worry much about challenges from the left or accommodating the president over the next two years. It also means that Democrats will have a very steep uphill climb to retake the House in 2014, since their candidates would have to run well ahead of their presidential nominee in at least a dozen Republican-leaning districts.
Just like our recent presidential election was settled in only a handful of battleground states, control of the U.S. House of Representatives comes down to only about 35 districts — fewer than 10 percent of the 435 districts — every two years. That gives overwhelming power to undecided voters who live in these swing districts, many of which are rural and conservative-leaning. This set-up also gives enormous power to the NRA, because many NRA members live in these rural swing districts.
So the Democrats and Obama know that the NRA doesn’t have clout because it has lots of money — it spent $18 million in congressional elections in 2012 — but the contrary. The NRA has money because it has clout. And it has clout because it has a lot of votes in key battleground House districts and battleground states voting for president and U.S. senators.
Back in 2000, Republican strategist and NRA board member Grover Norquist summed it up nicely, saying, “The question is intensity versus preference. You can always get a certain percentage to say they are in favor of some gun controls. But are they going to vote on their ‘control’ position?” Though many voters back gun control, says Norquist, their support doesn’t really motivate them when they go to the polls. “But for that 4-5 percent who care about guns, they will vote on this.”
Things have hardly changed since Norquist made those comments. The NRA’s job is made easier because it can target its resources at the three dozen swing districts like a military strategist dividing quadrants on a battlefield. That allows a small number of NRA voters to form a potent single-issue voting bloc, since a change in 5 percent of the vote in any swing district can make all the difference. The NRA has power not so much because of its deep pockets but because of the fundamental design of our geographic-based political map in which representatives are elected in single-seat, winner-take-all districts.
Many Democrats believe that strong support for gun control has cost their party key elections in such rural states as West Virginia, Missouri, Ohio, Arkansas, Colorado, Pennsylvania and elsewhere. They believe that Al Gore lost the presidential election in 2000 in his home state of Tennessee because he was on the wrong side of this issue.
That led to Democrats ducking and even pandering on this issue. Who can forget the ridiculous sight of John Kerry trumpeting his own prowess as a gun owner when he ran for president in 2004. When Democrats regained the House after the 2006 elections, they did so largely based on victories by Democrats winning in Republican-leaning districts. Knowing that support for gun control could cause them to lose their race, no matter how broad national support was, most of those winning Democrats backed the NRA positions. And in his first term, President Obama continued the Democratic duck, not even pushing to reauthorize the lapsed ban on semi-automatic weapons.
The reality is that the dynamics of winner-take-all elections allow gun control opponents to form a potent single-issue voting bloc that far outweighs their minority status — much like anti-Castro Cubans in Florida have pushed Democrats as well as Republicans to go hard on Castro. Despite lobbying from his liberal constituency, Obama has not fundamentally changed the Cold War era policy towards Cuba, due to fear of how that would play among a key bloc of swing voters in a key presidential swing state. Democrats know how to count not only votes but swing votes, whether in battleground states or battleground House districts.
That gives pro-gun swing voters and their advocates like the NRA tremendous influence in our political system. American pundits and political scientists often portray multiparty democracies elected by proportional representation, such as in Italy and Israel, as being beholden to tiny political parties of extremists who hold their governments hostage. Yet they fail to recognize how the dynamics of our own winner-take-all electoral politics allow well-organized political minorities such as those represented by the NRA to mobilize anti-gun control swing voters to push a radical agenda on the mainstream.
Looking ahead to 2014, control of the House once again will come down to the outcome of 35 or so close races. To earn a House majority, Democrats will need to sweep nearly all of them, largely in districts where a pro-gun control position doesn’t play well. The math of the 2014 election is daunting, since Democrats can’t win control of the U.S. House without winning more than a dozen districts where Mitt Romney defeated Barack Obama in 2012 — and that assumes that the Democrats sweep all 207 districts carried by Obama. So this dilemma for President Obama and the Democrats will not be settled easily.
Obama might manage to use the passion unleashed by this latest tragedy to re-authorize the ban on semi-automatic weapons. But any hope that he will lead an effort to enact substantive gun control is pure fantasy. Tragically so. When it comes to gun policy and the House, demography is destiny.
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Copyright © 2012 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All Rights Reserved.