“Whether related to the economy or the uncertainty that’s creating for people or the arrival of a president that certain groups have felt uncomfortable with from day one, this issue has really has come to symbolize something powerful for these voters,” says Dimock.
The change was somewhat more restrained among college-educated white men: The share of them prioritizing gun ownership increased from 46 percent to 59 percent. Among college-educated white women, the most Democratic-leaning component of the white electorate, support for gun rights increased 11 percentage points; among all minority adults, it rose a relatively modest 9 percentage points over the period.
But even after those changes, those key pillars of the modern Democratic coalition still lean heavily toward gun control: In the April 2012 Pew survey, 61 percent of both college-educated white women and all nonwhite adults said it was more important to control gun ownership than to protect gun rights. Young people, another pillar of the modern Democratic coalition, do not tilt as overwhelmingly toward the gun-control side, but are still more supportive than older generations.
What this means is that gun control is now overwhelmingly unpopular among the portions of the white electorate Obama is least likely to win anyway—and maintains solid majority support among the Americans most likely to actually vote for him. For individual Democratic senators or House members representing rural or heavily blue-collar states, the equation may look very different. But at the national level, Obama’s reluctance to address gun control means he is failing to articulate what remains a strong preference within his coalition. Gun control, in fact, remains a majority position with the same groups generally most enthusiastic about Obama’s recent embrace of gay marriage, free access to contraception in health insurance, and an administration version of the Dream Act for young illegal immigrants. It’s also possible that if Obama or other leading Democrats made a more forceful case for gun control, support for it in Obama’s coalition would rise further, back toward its levels when Clinton was articulating the argument for limits.
If Obama or other leading Democrats identified more strongly with the gun-control cause, there would undoubtedly be political costs: Such an emphasis would sharpen the cultural, class, and regional divides that already define American politics. It could help the president in places like Northern Virginia or the Denver and Philadelphia suburbs (all places where economic discontent threatens to erode his decisive 2008 support), and hurt him in more rural areas of the same states. But it’s a myth that there is no longer any audience for gun control: it is, in fact, the same audience that the president is pursuing with almost everything else he does.