Would a vote for gun control be political suicide for red state Dems?

The New York Times’ Thomas Edsall has written a fascinating piece that looks at a question I’ve been wondering about: is it really true that Democrats like Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Mark Begich of Alaska, Max Baucus of Montana, and Mark Pryor of Arkansas had to vote against the background check gun control bill? If they’d voted in favor, would they really risk losing their seats? It’s always terribly disappointing when red or purple state Dems sell out progressives on such issues. But at the same time, I wonder if my anger is misplaced. Senators representing states with a conservative electorate have to make some compromises, and a senator from Arkansas will inevitably vote differently than one from California, particularly on social issues. Still, I think red state Dems tend to vastly exaggerate the importance of certain votes and the potential reaction of the electorate to them. Edsall suggests that, at least where gun control is concerned, I am right.

His piece notes three crucial points:

— An array of polls, by liberal and conservative pollsters alike, show that universal background checks are overwhelmingly popular. For example, 84 percent of Alaska voters and 94 percent of North Dakotans support background checks.

— Second, elected officials across the board tend to view voters as being far more conservative than they actually are. According to one study:

a substantial and pervasive conservative bias in politicians’ estimates of district opinion. Politicians are much more likely to erroneously believe that their constituents are more conservative than they actually are than to erroneously believe that their constituents are more liberal than they actually are.

The study indicates that conservative politicians overestimate the conservative leanings of the electorate “by about 20 percentage points; liberals overestimate by about 10 points; and centrist Democrats like Heitkamp overestimate by about 15 points.”

— Finally, demographics mean that the make-up of both the country and the NRA are changing in ways that benefit gun control advocates. The angry old “Get off my lawn!” type white guys that tend to be the most hard-core gun nuts are dying off and becoming a much smaller share of the electorate.

The defeat of the background check bill was painful to many of us, but Edsall’s analysis suggests that there’s hope for the future. Gun control advocates say they plan to continue to keep the pressure on the Democrats who voted no. Kelly Ayotte’s no vote (she’s a NH Republican) already seems to be hurting her.

Still, I have to wonder how campaign finance relates to all of this. Many elected officials depend heavily the NRA for campaign funds, and they may be making the calculation that it’s in their self-interest to cast votes in favor of NRA positions, even if these positions are unpopular with the voters. In this context, I’m very curious to see if Michael Bloomberg’s gun control super PAC, Independence USA, will prove to be a political player anywhere near as powerful as the NRA. I certainly hope so. Because when I read about things like this I want to stab my eyes out.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee