What's the NRA Really Packing?

The National Rifle Association did not have a good election last fall — a mere 0.83 percent of the campaign cash it donated went to races with the outcomes it wanted — and yet the political clout of the gun lobby is accepted as veritable fact.

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The National Rifle Association did not have a good election last fall — a mere 0.83 percent of the campaign cash it donated went to races with the outcomes it wanted — and yet the political clout of the gun lobby is accepted as veritable fact. One gun-rights group leader told The Hill that if North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan votes for gun control, "we’ll go after her with both barrels." But if the 2012 elections are any guide, the gun lobby needs more target practice.

The NRA has long blocked discussion of gun regulations with its reputation for being able to sway elections, and this has given it the power to deliver real legislative results. In 2001, with the inauguration of President George W. Bush, Fortune crowned it the most powerful interest group in all of D.C., citing a narrative that's been repeated for more than a decade:

Although city slickers might be aghast at the ascendancy of the NRA, this is a highly focused, well-financed organization. Despite high-profile school shootings and unrelenting pressure from gun-control advocates, the NRA has held gun-control legislation at bay. How? By electing its supporters to Congress and, last year, to the White House. In particular, the NRA was pivotal in defeating Al Gore in Arkansas, Tennessee, and West Virginia--all states that usually vote Democratic. If Gore had won just one of them, he would now be President.

Nothing inspires zealotry like a threat, and few people feel more threatened than gun owners, more and more of whom are finding comfort in the NRA. It has 4.3 million members, up one million since last year, and two million since 1998.

The wide belief of the NRA's power to sway elections — particularly to defeat gun control-supporting Democrats — has lead to a wave of policy victories: The NRA got Stand Your Ground laws passed in more than 20 states. When the ATF wanted to track AK-47s and AR-15s being smuggled into Mexico by requiring gun dealers to report multiple sales of those weapons in 2010, the NRA stalled the plan. "The gun issue is so incendiary and fear of the NRA so great that the ATF plan languished for months at the Justice Department," The Washington Post reported, describing its sources like political dissidents: "In the past few days, the plan has quietly gained traction at Justice. But sources told The Post they fear that if the plan becomes public, the NRA will marshal its forces to kill it."

Measuring political clout is a tricky thing. Projecting the image of power is often all one needs to have very real influence. But when it comes to actual examples of the NRA mustering political power, by say defeating a defiant incumbent, examples are difficult to come by. After last year's elections, the Sunlight Foundation calculated the portion of money the NRA put into races that had outcomes the group wanted as a political "return on investment": the tally was just 0.83 percent because the group's biggest spends were $7.4 million to defeat President Obama and almost $1.9 million to back Mitt Romney, donations that had a return on investment of zero. The NRA objects to this analysis because the races it spent money on were "where it counted in amounts that could have made a difference" and supporting candidates who believed in their issues was "the right thing" to do. That may be true and in keeping with the democratic spirit of a contest of ideas, but it does not amount to political clout.

A recent example of the NRA trying to flex its muscle came in June, when the NRA demanded that the House Democrats it supported vote to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress over Fast and Furious. It had lobbied for an investigation into Holder for a year and a half, and said it would score the vote -- meaning a vote not to hold Holder in contempt could endanger a lawmaker's endorsement. Seventeen Democrats voted to hold Holder in criminal contempt, but 11 Democrats refused. They were Reps. John Dingell, Tim Holden, Tim Ryan, Kurt Schrader, Michael Michaud, Henry Cuellar, Ben Ray Lujan, and Heath Shuler. Reps. Joe Baca, Dennis Cardoza, and Sanford Bishop did not vote. Of those 11, seven are still in office. Two of the Democrats lost to other Democrats, and two didn't run. None were ousted by an NRA-backed Republican challenger.

Much of the decline in the clout of the NRA is traceable to what has changed in American politics generally and the Republican Party in particular. The NRA is often cited as the reason the Democrats suffered massive losses in the 1994 midterm elections, by both reporters and even Bill Clinton. But a lot has changed since 1994. Democrats may have lost most of the South in those midterms and those southern Republican states are still where the NRA is strongest. As The New Republic's Nate Cohn explained, "pro-gun voters are lost to Republicans, and probably for good." Put simply: no one thinks NRA members would vote for a gun-toting Democrat. The NRA's political fortunes are tied up with the Republican Party's and the NRA's campaign donations reflect this: it supports vastly more Republicans than Democrats. (A comment from an October 2012 Hot Air post: "I’m still PISSED because the NRA endorsed Harry Reid. There’s ‘stupid’, and then there is ‘absolutely stupid’." The endorsement, in that case, does not appear to have delivered a vote.) And yet since the NRA's asendancy, Democrats have still managed to win national elections and congressional majorities. When Obama won Ohio and Virginia, it was by focusing on the cities and suburbs, not rural voters. "To win nationally, Republicans will need to reclaim the socially moderate suburbs around Denver, Washington, and Philadelphia where gun control is at least a neutral issue, if not a real asset to Democrats," Cohn writes

The Gallup chart at right shows a big partisan split over gun ownership. The top 10 most-armed states, according to The Daily Beast, are not swing states. They are Kentucky, Utah, Montana, Wyoming, Alaska, West Virginia, South Dakota, North Dakota, Arkansas, and Alabama. (The Democrat senators most openly skeptical of new gun laws -- Heidi Heitkamp, Max Baucus, Joe Manchin -- are from those states.) An NBC poll finds that 41 percent of Americans see the NRA positively, and 34 percent see it negatively. If you sort for gun owners, the divide is more stark: 62 percent of gun owners see the NRA favorably, while only 25 percent of non-gun owners do. And while the NRA has 4 million members, that's a tiny percentage of gun owners and the electorate..

Research published in the British Journal of Political Science found that an NRA endorsement was worth 2 percentage points for a Republican challenger in 1994 and 1996, but very little impact for other candidates. In 2012, Paul Waldman said his analysis of the 2010 elections found similar numbers, and so "there were few races in the last four congressional elections where such a boost from an NRA endorsement would have made a difference – only four races, in fact, out of the 1,038 times the NRA endorsed House candidates."

As the Wire has pointed out, most of the headline-making public statements the NRA has made since the Newtown shooting are not new ideas, but old slogans their fans have passed around a while. These include "The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," and that Obama is a "hypocrite" for having Secret service protection for his daughters but is skeptical of armed guards protecting "our kids." While rallying the fan club might be good for membership, it has not had much effect on the outcome of elections.

Let's look at the most recent high-profile race in which the NRA did pick the winner: the Republican primary between Sen. Dick Lugar and Richard Mourdock. Lugar voted for the Brady Bill in 1993 and pushed to renew the assault weapons ban in 2011. The NRA spent almost $169,000 opposing Lugar in the primary, and Lugar lost. But no one is claiming the NRA is why Lugar lost -- not in The Washington Post's campaign autopsy, not in The National Review's. They blame Lugar's age, disconnection from Indiana, poor campaign, even lack of interest. And in the end, the NRA's support only led to a worst outcome for the group because Mourdock went on to lose to Democrat Joe Donnelly. The Lugar case is a good example of how the NRA's power is slipping. As with some Tea Party candidates, the NRA focuses more on what makes its fans cheer than what might win over people in the middle. The Indiana Senate race was already tighter than you'd expect, given how easily Mitt Romney was beating President Obama in the state, before Mourdock made a rape comment that cost him the election.

The NRA is able to get what it wants from Congress and the federal bureaucracy because it has a reputation for being able to swing elections. But that reputation is overblown. How can the NRA can't demand politicians block wildly popular legislation if it can't punish politicians for disobeying its orders?

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.