Why the Senate Vote May Signal 2016 Problems for the Gun Lobby

Electoral College math helps explain how Senate politics can so diverge from national sentiment on gun control. (National Journal)

The outcome of Wednesday’s dramatic Senate vote on expanding background checks simultaneously demonstrated the difficult geography confronting gun-control advocates in the Senate and the potentially daunting math facing gun-rights proponents in the Electoral College.

On the one hand, the defeat showed how difficult it is for gun-control advocates to reach the 60-vote threshold required to break a filibuster in an institution whose two-senator-per-state apportionment magnifies the impact of small, heavily rural states where guns are interwoven into the culture.

On the other, the vote suggested that, after years in which gun-control has been sublimated as a political issue, support for expanding background checks and possibly further steps has again become a political norm in almost all of the blue-leaning states that underpin the recent Democratic advantage in the race for the White House.

One way to understand these divergent trends is to examine the Senate vote on the critical amendment to offer background checks through the prism of the Electoral College. The amendment drew unified support from both senators in 21 states representing 261 Electoral College votes. By contrast, both senators opposed the amendment in 17 states representing just 146 Electoral College votes. Senators from the remaining 12 states, with a combined 128 Electoral College votes, split their vote on the amendment. (The remaining three Electoral College votes belong to the District of Columbia, which of course does not vote in the Senate.)

The contrast between the tight balance in the total number of states that unified for and against the amendment, and the broad imbalance in their Electoral College strength, underscores how the Senate’s structure magnifies the influence of smaller states, most of them rural, preponderantly white, and culturally conservative.

This fundamental pattern shows how narrow a path that gun-control proponents must climb to win a Senate vote. The 17 states with uniform opposition to the amendment slightly overstate the conservative strength because it includes Nevada, where Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid voted against the measure for procedural reasons. But even so, the unbroken opposition to the amendment from 32 senators (including two Democrats) from 16 culturally conservative states that vote reliably Republican in presidential elections (all voted for the GOP candidate over Barack Obama both times) means gun-rights forces needed to win only nine votes from the remaining 68 senators to sustain a filibuster. Given the demography and political leaning of those 16 states, it is difficult to see how gun-control advocates today can bring much pressure to bear on senators from them.

In the aftermath of Wednesday’s vote, many analysts have focused on the four red-state Democrats who voted against the measure, but some red-state Democrats (and House members) have always opposed gun control. As a strategy for reaching 60 votes, it may be even more important for gun-control advocates to either pressure — or defeat — opposing Republicans from swing or Democratic-leaning states, who include Sens. Rob Portman in Ohio, Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, Dean Heller in Nevada, and Ron Johnson in Wisconsin.

But even as it demonstrated the difficulty of amassing a 60-vote Senate super-majority, the results also showed how the background-check issue could create hurdles for the GOP in the 2016 presidential race — if Democrats continue to press it, as President Obama on Wednesday signaled they will. The vote suggested that senators viewed it as safe (or necessary) to support the expanded checks in a swathe of states sufficient to put a presidential nominee on the brink of an Electoral College majority.

The vast majority of states where both senators supported the measure are states electorally shaped by the modern Democratic coalition of the millennial generation, minorities, and college-educated whites, especially women. Polls consistently show the latter two groups to be the strongest supporters of gun control in the electorate. And that means the issue could present another barrier, along with such social issues as gay marriage and abortion, for Republicans needing to crack the Democrats’ winning coalition in those states; given the overwhelming support for background checks in polls, it’s easy to imagine Democrats highlighting the issue in ads aimed at suburban voters in places like the counties outside Philadelphia, Denver, or Detroit, or in Northern Virginia, particularly if the GOP in 2016 chooses a nominee like Florida’s Sen. Marco Rubio, who opposed the measure.

These Electoral College raw results include some quirks that might need to be adjusted to understand the relationship between the Senate vote and the presidential map in practice. The Democratic tally includes West Virginia, which has moved sharply away from the party in presidential politics. But it does not include D.C.’s three electoral votes. Nor does it include Wisconsin, where Johnson, who was elected in the GOP’s 2010 landslide, opposed the amendment.

Johnson was the only senator in either party who voted against the bill who is from a state in what I have called “the blue wall”: the 18 states that have voted Democratic in at least the past six consecutive presidential elections. From those states, all 32 Democratic senators plus Republicans Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Mark Kirk of Illinois, and Susan Collins of Maine voted for the bill. Johnson’s opposition may be an anomaly for Wisconsin because he is accumulating an unwaveringly conservative voting record that could make it difficult for him to win reelection in 2016, when he must face a presidential-year electorate.

If West Virginia is subtracted from the Democratic column and D.C .and Wisconsin are added, the total Electoral College votes for states that showed support for gun control in the Senate vote rises to 269, just one short of the number needed for victory.

The Republican total needs some adjustment, too. It includes Nevada, where Reid voted against the bill for procedural reasons. But it does not include Arizona, Montana, Indiana, Missouri, South Dakota, and Louisiana, all states that now vote reliably Republican at the presidential level (though Obama carried Indiana in 2008). In the latter four of those states, the Senate vote split on party lines, with one Democratic senator supporting the amendment and one Republican senator opposing it. Arizona’s two Republican senators split, with John McCain backing the amendment and Jeff Flake opposing it; Montana's two Democrats also split on the vote. Removing Nevada and giving the GOP those other six states, raises the Electoral College tally of states skeptical of gun control to 186.

After all these adjustments, this calculation still substantially favors Democrats in the Electoral College. That’s mostly because the states whose senators unified against the measure tend to be smaller than those whose senators unified for it. That comparison is irrelevant in the Senate struggle, but it is vital in the presidential race. Of the states in which both senators opposed the background-check amendment, just three (Tennessee, Georgia, and Texas) possess 10 or more Electoral College votes. That compares to 11 states with 10 or more Electoral College votes whose senators unified in support of the amendment.

The balance was closer on two other key votes during the debate. On the amendment from Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., to limit the size of magazine clips, both senators from 17 states representing 219 Electoral College votes supported it; both senators from 21 states representing 188 Electoral College votes voted no. On the amendment from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to ban assault weapons, both senators from 15 states representing 205 Electoral College votes voted yes, while both senators from 25 states with 209 Electoral College votes (including, notably, Colorado) voted no. In each case, the remaining states split their votes.

In a pattern likely to prove relevant for 2016, every Democratic and independent senator from a “blue-wall” state — plus Kirk— voted for the magazine limits and even the assault ban, except Maine independent Angus King, who peeled off on the assault ban. Wisconsin’s Johnson opposed both measures, as did Toomey of Pennsylvania and Collins of Maine, the remaining blue-wall Republicans who had supported the background checks. That means, except for King’s defection on the assault ban, each of the 32 Democratic and independent senators from the blue-wall states voted with gun-control advocates on the three critical measures. No Democrat from any state Obama carried in either election voted against the background checks, three Democrats from those states voted against the magazine limits, and eight Democrats and independents from those states opposed the assault ban.

That pattern suggests that if Congress does not resolve the issue before then, the 2016 Democratic nominee will face overwhelming demand from the party base to support expanded background checks, substantial pressure to embrace the magazine limits, and some, but less commanding, pressure on the assault-weapons ban. Conversely, the unanimous opposition to these measures by senators from the core Republican states (except for McCain on background checks) suggests the next GOP nominee may not support any of them. Which means that the two parties could be arguing about these issues long enough for their potential Electoral College ramifications to matter not just on the blackboard, but on the ground.

Stephanie Czekalinski contributed to this article