Big Swinging Polls

Perhaps when looking down the barrel of massive public support for universal gun sales background checks, the NRA and its Republican allies just think public opinion is more malleable than is usually assumed. A data point in favor of this proposition is offered this morning by Slate‘s Dave Weigel:

A year ago, as the presidential race was taking shape, The Washington Post’s pollster asked voters whether they favored the use of drones to kill terrorists or terror suspects if they were “American citizens living in other countries.” The net rating at the time was positive: 65 percent for, 26 percent against.

Today, after a month of Rand Paul-driven discussion of drone warfare, Gallup asks basically the same question: Should the U.S. “use drones to launch airstrikes in other countries against U.S. citizens living abroad who are suspected terrorists?” The new numbers: 41 percent for, 52 percent against.

That’s interesting in part because technically speaking, Paul was talking about the hypothetical of drone strikes on U.S. citizens here in America, not overseas (79% oppose that idea, but aside from not being something the Obama administration actually contemplated carrying out, it hasn’t been polled before). But his attention-grabbing filibuster (and the high praise he got for it, some from long-time opponents of Paulism in both parties) moved the whole landscape on drones.

This particular eye-popping shift owed much of its power, it should be clear, from the identification with Barack Obama of a policy most Republicans once instinctively supported. It may be the current overwhelming support for background checks is partially due to past (if eroding) support for background checks by conservatives as an alternative to tougher gun measure. So polarizing the issue will probably move some numbers, though not as quickly or dramatically as happened with the once-popular, now-suspect drone program.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.