The outcome of Wednesday’s dramatic Senate vote on expanding background checks simultaneously demonstrated the difficult geography confronting gun-control advocates in the Senate and the potentially daunting math facing gun-rights proponents in the Electoral College.
On the one hand, the defeat showed how difficult it is for gun-control advocates to reach the 60-vote threshold required to break a filibuster in an institution whose two-senator-per-state apportionment magnifies the impact of small, heavily rural states where guns are interwoven into the culture.
On the other, the vote suggested that, after years in which gun-control has been sublimated as a political issue, support for expanding background checks and possibly further steps has again become a political norm in almost all of the blue-leaning states that underpin the recent Democratic advantage in the race for the White House.
One way to understand these divergent trends is to examine the Senate vote on the critical amendment to offer background checks through the prism of the Electoral College. The amendment drew unified support from both senators in 21 states representing 261 Electoral College votes. By contrast, both senators opposed the amendment in 17 states representing just 146 Electoral College votes. Senators from the remaining 12 states, with a combined 128 Electoral College votes, split their vote on the amendment. (The remaining three Electoral College votes belong to the District of Columbia, which of course does not vote in the Senate.)
The contrast between the tight balance in the total number of states that unified for and against the amendment, and the broad imbalance in their Electoral College strength, underscores how the Senate’s structure magnifies the influence of smaller states, most of them rural, preponderantly white, and culturally conservative.
This fundamental pattern shows how narrow a path that gun-control proponents must climb to win a Senate vote. The 17 states with uniform opposition to the amendment slightly overstate the conservative strength because it includes Nevada, where Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid voted against the measure for procedural reasons. But even so, the unbroken opposition to the amendment from 32 senators (including two Democrats) from 16 culturally conservative states that vote reliably Republican in presidential elections (all voted for the GOP candidate over Barack Obama both times) means gun-rights forces needed to win only nine votes from the remaining 68 senators to sustain a filibuster. Given the demography and political leaning of those 16 states, it is difficult to see how gun-control advocates today can bring much pressure to bear on senators from them.
In the aftermath of Wednesday’s vote, many analysts have focused on the four red-state Democrats who voted against the measure, but some red-state Democrats (and House members) have always opposed gun control. As a strategy for reaching 60 votes, it may be even more important for gun-control advocates to either pressure — or defeat — opposing Republicans from swing or Democratic-leaning states, who include Sens. Rob Portman in Ohio, Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, Dean Heller in Nevada, and Ron Johnson in Wisconsin.
But even as it demonstrated the difficulty of amassing a 60-vote Senate super-majority, the results also showed how the background-check issue could create hurdles for the GOP in the 2016 presidential race — if Democrats continue to press it, as President Obama on Wednesday signaled they will. The vote suggested that senators viewed it as safe (or necessary) to support the expanded checks in a swathe of states sufficient to put a presidential nominee on the brink of an Electoral College majority.
The vast majority of states where both senators supported the measure are states electorally shaped by the modern Democratic coalition of the millennial generation, minorities, and college-educated whites, especially women. Polls consistently show the latter two groups to be the strongest supporters of gun control in the electorate. And that means the issue could present another barrier, along with such social issues as gay marriage and abortion, for Republicans needing to crack the Democrats’ winning coalition in those states; given the overwhelming support for background checks in polls, it’s easy to imagine Democrats highlighting the issue in ads aimed at suburban voters in places like the counties outside Philadelphia, Denver, or Detroit, or in Northern Virginia, particularly if the GOP in 2016 chooses a nominee like Florida’s Sen. Marco Rubio, who opposed the measure.
These Electoral College raw results include some quirks that might need to be adjusted to understand the relationship between the Senate vote and the presidential map in practice. The Democratic tally includes West Virginia, which has moved sharply away from the party in presidential politics. But it does not include D.C.’s three electoral votes. Nor does it include Wisconsin, where Johnson, who was elected in the GOP’s 2010 landslide, opposed the amendment.
Johnson was the only senator in either party who voted against the bill who is from a state in what I have called “the blue wall”: the 18 states that have voted Democratic in at least the past six consecutive presidential elections. From those states, all 32 Democratic senators plus Republicans Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Mark Kirk of Illinois, and Susan Collins of Maine voted for the bill. Johnson’s opposition may be an anomaly for Wisconsin because he is accumulating an unwaveringly conservative voting record that could make it difficult for him to win reelection in 2016, when he must face a presidential-year electorate.
Stephanie Czekalinski contributed contributed to this article.
This article appears in the April 19, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.