Last year, the analytics firm HaystaqDNA interviewed thousands of voters across the country about gun issues and used that data to determine which voters ARS should target with mail and digital ads—and which voters to avoid.
"For most groups, it's just a better focus of resources. For ARS, it's absolutely critical to its mission," said HaystaqDNA president Michael Simon, who managed analytics for Obama's 2008 campaign. "There are people to whom that issue is anathema. They couldn't afford to make mistakes."
For what it's worth, Simon said he thinks it's unlikely the backlash over ARS's ad contributed much to Barber's narrow loss, though it's the moment that stands out most in a campaign decided by only 167 votes. Simon said his firm's research found that ARS helped sway "a few thousand" voters.
By investing in analytics, ARS is taking an approach that has recently become mainstream in presidential and statewide races but hasn't worked its way as firmly into issue-advocacy yet.
"ARS has really taken on a scientific approach," Simon said. "They're able to go to a donor or activist and tell them, this is how many people we persuaded."
But it's also beneficial that ARS has learned which voters to avoid: the conservatives who will be more motivated to vote against the group's candidate by seeing ARS ads during the local news instead of missing a quieter flow of mail to their neighbors' houses.
"It's a question of avoiding traps where it could be counterproductive," said Robert Spitzer, a professor at the State University of New York at Cortland, who has written about gun politics.
One of the group's 2014 success stories came in the mail. In Washington state, ARS supported a ballot initiative requiring background checks for all gun purchases and opposed another initiative that would have legally undermined the first.
"There was, to some extent, confusion among voters about what the laws actually were," said ARS spokesman Mark Prentice. "And some voters believe that laws were stronger than they actually are."
ARS launched a targeted direct mail campaign to 245,000 households, offering details about the current laws and proposed laws to voters it thought it could win over and skipping households that wouldn't be receptive to the message. In a survey, it found that support for their favored measure increased by more than 8 percentage points among people who got their mail, while support for the other ballot measure dropped by 5 points.
In the end, ARS came up with two victories in Washington: The background check initiative passed, and the opposing one failed.
Compared with the group's losses in the House and Senate, that may have seemed like a minor victory. But it indicates a path of least resistance for gun-control groups: Whereas candidates who support reforms like expanded background checks can be painted as anti-gun activists, ballot measures allow groups like ARS to stick to the specifics, debating the exact merits of a law.
That doesn't mean they'll favor ballot initiatives at the expense of spending in congressional or gubernatorial races, Prentice said. But after a rough first election cycle, it's one area that offers promise.
"We'll be strongly considering future ballot initiatives," he said.