Explainer: How Much Does the NRA Influence Elections?

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The National Rifle Association will hand out hundreds of endorsements over the next two months to congressional and gubernatorial candidates, who—if history is any guide—will tout it proudly and loudly to their voters.

In tight races in battleground states such as Ohio and North Carolina, staying on the right side of the powerful pro-gun organization is often considered necessary for electoral success in both Republican and Democratic campaigns. The quest for the endorsement also helps explain the steady, bipartisan voting bloc in Washington on one of the most divisive issues in American politics.

But how much does the group actually matter in individual races? Possibly less than you think.

Carrying a big stick

Last election, more than 250 candidates for the House of Representatives received the NRA’s endorsement, about a quarter of them Democrats. Among these were Ohio governor Ted Strickland, and incumbent congressmen Tim Ryan and John Boccieri.

At their endorsement event one week before the election, the three candidates from the most hotly contested region of the country blasted clay pigeons with shotguns at an outdoor range. Reporters filmed, jotted notes, and occasionally took aim themselves. Meanwhile, Strickland’s brother spent the bulk of the campaign driving throughout the state in a “Sportsmen for Strickland” RV, the sides plastered with a giant mural of the governor in hunting apparel.

(Full disclosure: This anecdote stems from insider knowledge - I attended the event during a couple of years working in politics; I hit three clay pigeons in ten attempts.)

The candidates’ emphasis on their pro-gun bona fides was not exceptional. Part of the reason is demographic. In North Carolina, for instance, the NRA endorsement has similar importance as in Ohio.

“The NRA is an extremely important constituency in the political dynamics of North Carolina,” says Brad Crone, a Democratic political consultant in the state. “You‘ve got a huge population base who are active hunters. It’s a moderate-to-conservative state, so their endorsements are pretty important.”

But, demand for the NRA’s support extends beyond demographics. Slightly less than half of the South Atlantic region—which includes both the Carolinas, as well as surrounding states—favors gun rights over gun control, according to Pew Research from the last election. Yet in 2010, all but four of North Carolina’s winning congressional candidates earned the endorsement—four Democrats and five Republicans, or 70 percent of the state’s 13 seats.

That’s because the NRA has political muscle in its own right. The association spends millions of dollars every campaign cycle, both on direct campaign contributions and independent expenditures. This combination totaled $8.5 million in expenditures in 2010, ranking tenth most for outside spending groups in that election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

In addition to spending, the NRA is highly organized, claims a membership base of four million Americans, and enthusiastically alerts its members of its approval or disapproval of lawmakers’ actions.  All of this means candidates tread lightly.

“I tell my clients you don’t win anything by picking a fight with the NRA,” said Crone. “My clients are moderate and conservative Democrats, and we don’t win when we engage in a debate on gun control - the ability for them to generate ill-will and negative campaigns for you is too great.”

Overrated influence

While the NRA is considered a political powerhouse, an analysis earlier this year by Paul Waldman, a contributing editor at the liberal magazine the American Prospect, found that the NRA has little actual ability to move the dial during an election. Some of Waldman's main takeaways were that "the bulk of NRA endorsements go to incumbent Republicans with almost no chance of losing," the group had no role in delivering the White House to George W. Bush in 2000 or the House of Representatives to Republicans in 1994, and that support for gun control has remained essentially unchanged.

“The NRA has virtually no impact on congressional elections. The NRA endorsement, so coveted by so many politicians, is almost meaningless. Nor does the money the organization spends have any demonstrable impact on the outcome of races,” Waldman wrote.

Waldman contends that, while the association spends millions of dollars every campaign cycle, that money is divided between hundreds of races. Candidates receive an average of about $2,000, according to Waldman. The Center for Responsive Politics comes up with a similar number. Waldman also analyzed the NRA endorsement for the last four elections and found it earned candidates no more than two percentage points, and then only in a few specific cases.

The NRA dismisses the study. “There are some things you come across, and you just roll your eyes,” said Andrew Arulanandam, the spokesman for the organization. “That was one of them.”

Even if its campaigning does not directly affect voters at the booth, the NRA certainly shapes races. In Ohio, during the 2010 elections, 5 congressional districts featured Republicans and Democrats with “A” ratings, meaning more than 25 percent of the state’s congressional delegation would side with the NRA, regardless of the election’s winner.

“Their actual influence on the outcomes has been wildly overstated, but reputation counts a lot in politics, and the NRA certainly has an established reputation as effective,” said Robert Spitzer, a professor at the State University of New York at Cortland. Spitzer literally wrote the book on the politics of gun control, called The Politics of Gun Control (now in its fifth edition).

Keeping up appearances

There are a few ways the NRA maintains that reputation, along with its influence on electoral politics:

Clear expectations: Much like a grade school teacher disciplining students, the National Rifle Association sets well-defined ground rules for campaigning politicians. There are clear rewards for following and consequences for disobeying. Candidates know what they have to do to receive the endorsement and campaign contributions, and what will fill their phone lines with angry callers.

“We have to be fair, and we have to be consistent, and we have to be honest,” said Arulanandam. “That’s one thing you can bank on. We’re pretty clear where we stand on issues, and we communicate that with legislators.”

The NRA sends a questionnaire to each candidate, which asks how they will vote on gun issues. The questionnaire, combined with any past votes and public statements on these issues, forms a “scorecard.” The NRA publishes the ratings in its magazines and online, for its members to see, as well as sending them in e-mails and mailings. An “A” rating will generally earn a candidate the endorsement, unless another candidate also scores an “A.” Neither the questions nor the answers are made public.

2. A one-issue agenda. The NRA’s agenda typically overlaps with the Republican platform more so than with Democrats. That’s reflected in their endorsements and campaign contributions, about 75 percent of which tend to go to Republicans. But, the organization maintains it is nonpartisan.

“We do not take party affiliation into consideration when we make endorsements,” said Arulanandam.

In the last election, the NRA endorsed Democrats who voted for health care reform, the stimulus, and cap-and-trade—anathema to most Republicans—as long as they maintained an “A” on the scorecard. Spitzer says that encourages Democrats to take a bite at the apple, particularly if they want to appear more moderate or conservative in a swing district.

“We live in a time of issue rich politics. There are a lot of things on the plate of American politics, like the economy and jobs,” Spitzer said. “The gun issue really ranks much lower for most Americans voters.”

It also increases the odds that multiple candidates in an election will support gun rights. While rare, the NRA has occasionally strayed past gun issues on their scorecard, Spitzer points out. For instance, in 2002, the organization gave demerits for support of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign reform bill.

3. Loyalty. In another example of clear expectations, once a candidate is endorsed, as long as he or she maintains an “A” scorecard, the association maintains its endorsement. The NRA has a policy that it does not switch horses in midstream. That means incumbents always know they can count on the organization’s support, provided they continue to align themselves with the NRA on gun issues.

4. Carrot and stick. Endorsed candidates receive direct campaign contributions, grassroots support, advocacy on their behalf, and often independent expenditures, including advertisements. On the reverse side, with as many as four million members, when the NRA does not like a candidates action, that candidate knows it.

The NRA has “a very great ability to mobilize those people in a given state, congressional district, county, or locality to attend meetings, write letters, and get their voice heard at the local level,” said Spitzer. “In politics when a congressional office receives a bunch of letters or a bunch of phone calls or a group of people show up at a local town hall meeting and they’re all talking about the gun issue, it has an impact.”

While Spitzer downplays the NRA’s practical ability to move the needle during an election, he thinks the outcry from members often affects candidates, and helps explain the organization’s influence.

“I think they pay attention to the bark,” he said. “The chief reason why is because politicians are basically a skittish lot. They want to avoid conflict. They’d rather have an easy path to reelection or to election.”