In another paper, Skovron and Broockman surveyed county party chairs and found that while Democratic Party chairs favored moderate candidates, viewing liberalism as an electoral liability, Republicans did not similarly favor centrists over conservatives. "Pro-gun interests have succeeded not just in pushing politicians to do what they want through donations, but by actually manipulating their perceptions of the electorate’s positions through using grassroots organizing by gun owners," Skovron told me. He cited Pew polling suggesting that 21 percent of gun owners have contacted public officials about gun policy, while only 12 percent of non-owners have done so.
Politicians’ right-skewed misperceptions exceed 20 percentage points on issues such as gun control—where these misperceptions are the largest—and persist in states at every level of legislative professionalism, among both candidates and sitting officeholders, among politicians in very competitive districts, and when we compare politicians’ perceptions to voters’ opinions only.
Pundits often suggest that the problem is an intensity gap between pro-gun voters and gun control voters, which may well have been true in the past, but I find no evidence that it remains the case. The American National Election Studies 2016 survey asks respondents to rate the importance of gun access to them. The chart below shows that Democrats are just as likely to rate the issue as “extremely important.” I find that 37 percent of respondents both believe that it should be more difficult to buy guns and rate the issue as “extremely” (19 percent) or “very” (18) important. That compares to 5 percent of respondents who want to make it easier to buy guns and rate it “extremely” (3 percent) or “very” (2) important. Finally, 23 percent of respondents believe that access to guns should be kept the same and believe the issue to be “extremely” (11 percent) or “very” (12 percent) important.There may have been a time in which gun owners were more concerned about the issue. But photos of Sandy Hook and social media posts from terrified high schoolers may have influenced that dynamic.It’s important to note that this is generic opinion data, and the party should be agnostic as to how candidates message their support for gun control. For instance, red-state Democrats like Joe Manchin may want to boast about their pro-gun bona fides, which will actually give them more ability to push for gun control legislation because gun owners will feel less threatened. But there is little to be gained broadly by Democrats embracing guns. As Dan Friedman at the Trace has documented, the NRA no longer donates or endorses Democrats (with the exception of Henry Cuellar, the worst Democrat in Congress). Even if a Democrat is pro-gun, their Republican opponent will run to their right on the issue and collect gun lobby money and endorsements. And that position comes with a major downside: According to ANES, only 5 percent of Democrats support making it easier to buy a gun.For too long Democrats have cowered in fear of the NRA, but there is little reason to believe they represent more than a small share of the population. For too long, Democrats have believed only pro-gun Blue Dogs can represent the districts they are targeting. In reality, Democrats can run on common-sense gun regulations and win, even in the reddest districts they need to win back the House.Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.Sean McElwee is a researcher and writer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter.