|From: Steven Hill, Center for Voting and Democracy
Below is a short commentary (about 630 words) from Rob Richie and myself
entitled "Guns and Moms: November's Race within a Race." This commentary
uses the backdrop of the recent Million Mom March to examine the impact that
the issue of gun control is likely to have on this November's election. We
conclude that, paradoxically, *both* Al Gore and congressional Republicans
may gain from this issue. And that Al Gore's presidential gain may be his
party's loss in its other major electoral goal: retaking the U.S. House of
We come to this conclusion after analyzing the dynamics of swing voters in
key congressional races. The power of groups like the NRA comes, not so much
from its considerable campaign war chest, but from its power to mobilize
passionate supporters of gun rights in the relatively few close elections
that often can determine control of our legislatures. So while Al Gore may
win votes nationally by pushing gun control and attacking the NRA, he may
hurt Democratic candidates' chances in key swing districts.
Please let me know if you wish to publish this piece, either by email or
telephone (415) 665-5044. My address, if you should need it, is P.O. Box
22411, San Francisco CA 94122.
Guns and Moms: November's Race within a Race
By Rob Richie and Steven Hill
On Mother's Day, several hundred thousand people gathered in
Washington, DC for the "Million Mom March" to support gun
control. Nearby, some twenty-five thousand gathered to oppose
gun control. Which side do you think has a better chance in the
Al Gore and most Democrats are betting that gun control is an
issue whose time has come. Yet the National Rifle Association is
working hard to mobilize its several million members. November
promises to be a potentially historic shootout for both supporters
and opponents of gun control.
Paradoxically, it just may be that both Al Gore and congressional
allies of the NRA will gain in the process.
Gore's highlighting of gun control is based on a shift in the politics of
guns in recent years. After tragedies like the shootings at Columbine High
School, a widely recognized tool in voter mobilization -- fear -- was
available to Bill Clinton and other gun control advocates. To the NRA's
dismay, Clinton paid no price in 1996 for advocating gun control; Republican
nominee Bob Dole avoided defense of gun rights as a political loser.
In presidential elections, gun control indeed may now be a winning
issue. Gore stands to pick up swing votes from "soccer moms" and other
independent voters in cities and suburbs in key states who respond
positively to sensible-sounding efforts to protect children and curb
Yet Al Gore's gain may be his party's loss in its other major
electoral goal: retaking the U.S. House of Representatives.
The simple fact is that the NRA has power because there is a
critical mass of voters out there who intensely support gun rights.
What's more, these voters are disproportionately "swing voters" --
among that 10 to 15 percent of voters up for grabs in a close election.
They often are classic Reagan Democrats, who fear infringement on
gun ownership. They form a potent single-issue voting bloc,
particularly in rural areas.
The combination of their passion for gun rights and willingness
to "swing" between Democrats and Republicans traditionally has
outweighed their minority status. Although big majorities tend
to support gun control measures, their support has been broad
rather than deep.
The NRA's influence has come from its capacity to move its
supporters in key swing districts and states -- with its message
more than its money, contrary to what some campaign finance
reformers say, who focus on the NRA's hefty budget.
As NRA board member Grover Norquist said recently, "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 you going
to vote on your control position?"
An analysis of House Democrats who voted against gun
control measures in June 1999 reveals that most represent
competitive, blue-collar districts, where constituents
are more likely to embrace gun rights. For these Democrats, support
for gun control traditionally has caused them to lose their seats,
no matter how broad the national support for gun control.
Control of the House this year will be decided in some 35 close races -- the
other 400 essentially are being conceded by one of the major parties because
of incumbency or lopsided partisan splits that make the district safe, no
matter how much money challengers spend.
The power of the NRA comes from its power to influence these
relatively few close elections. There, a change in 5% of the vote
can make all the difference -- both for winning those races and
control of Congress.
Democrats hope that some of those "million moms" and their families have
become equally passionate about gun control, but that hope has yet to be
tested. Given this delicate balance, both Democrats and Republicans are
trying to position themselves between the swings of the polls.
Unfortunately, sound policy and civil debate get caught in the
[Rob Richie is executive director of The Center for Voting and
Democracy and Steven Hill is the Center's western regional director.
They are co-authors of "Reflecting All of Us" (Beacon Press
1999). For more information, see www.fairvote.org or write to:
PO Box 60037, Washington, DC 20039.]