Why the Senate Vote May Signal 2016 Problems for the Gun Lobby

Electoral College math helps explain how Senate politics can so diverge from national sentiment on gun control.
National Journal
Ronald Brownstein
April 18, 2013, 11:07 a.m.

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.

If West Vir­gin­ia is sub­trac­ted from the Demo­crat­ic column and D.C .and Wis­con­sin are ad­ded, the total Elect­or­al Col­lege votes for states that showed sup­port for gun con­trol in the Sen­ate vote rises to 269, just one short of the num­ber needed for vic­tory.

The Re­pub­lic­an total needs some ad­just­ment, too. It in­cludes Nevada, where Re­id voted against the bill for pro­ced­ur­al reas­ons. But it does not in­clude Ari­zona, Montana, In­di­ana, Mis­souri, South Dakota, and Louisi­ana, all states that now vote re­li­ably Re­pub­lic­an at the pres­id­en­tial level (though Obama car­ried In­di­ana in 2008). In the lat­ter four of those states, the Sen­ate vote split on party lines, with one Demo­crat­ic sen­at­or sup­port­ing the amend­ment and one Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­or op­pos­ing it. Ari­zona’s two Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors split, with John Mc­Cain back­ing the amend­ment and Jeff Flake op­pos­ing it; Montana’s two Demo­crats also split on the vote. Re­mov­ing Nevada and giv­ing the GOP those oth­er six states, raises the Elect­or­al Col­lege tally of states skep­tic­al of gun con­trol to 186.

After all these ad­just­ments, this cal­cu­la­tion still sub­stan­tially fa­vors Demo­crats in the Elect­or­al Col­lege. That’s mostly be­cause the states whose sen­at­ors uni­fied against the meas­ure tend to be smal­ler than those whose sen­at­ors uni­fied for it. That com­par­is­on is ir­rel­ev­ant in the Sen­ate struggle, but it is vi­tal in the pres­id­en­tial race. Of the states in which both sen­at­ors op­posed the back­ground-check amend­ment, just three (Ten­ness­ee, Geor­gia, and Texas) pos­sess 10 or more Elect­or­al Col­lege votes. That com­pares to 11 states with 10 or more Elect­or­al Col­lege votes whose sen­at­ors uni­fied in sup­port of the amend­ment.

The bal­ance was closer on two oth­er key votes dur­ing the de­bate. On the amend­ment from Sen. Frank Lauten­berg, D-N.J., to lim­it the size of magazine clips, both sen­at­ors from 17 states rep­res­ent­ing 219 Elect­or­al Col­lege votes sup­por­ted it; both sen­at­ors from 21 states rep­res­ent­ing 188 Elect­or­al Col­lege votes voted no. On the amend­ment from Sen. Di­anne Fein­stein, D-Cal­if., to ban as­sault weapons, both sen­at­ors from 15 states rep­res­ent­ing 205 Elect­or­al Col­lege votes voted yes, while both sen­at­ors from 25 states with 209 Elect­or­al Col­lege votes (in­clud­ing, not­ably, Col­or­ado) voted no. In each case, the re­main­ing states split their votes.

In a pat­tern likely to prove rel­ev­ant for 2016, every Demo­crat­ic and in­de­pend­ent sen­at­or from a “blue-wall” state — plus Kirk— voted for the magazine lim­its and even the as­sault ban, ex­cept Maine in­de­pend­ent An­gus King, who peeled off on the as­sault ban. Wis­con­sin’s John­son op­posed both meas­ures, as did Toomey of Pennsylvania and Collins of Maine, the re­main­ing blue-wall Re­pub­lic­ans who had sup­por­ted the back­ground checks. That means, ex­cept for King’s de­fec­tion on the as­sault ban, each of the 32 Demo­crat­ic and in­de­pend­ent sen­at­ors from the blue-wall states voted with gun-con­trol ad­voc­ates on the three crit­ic­al meas­ures. No Demo­crat from any state Obama car­ried in either elec­tion voted against the back­ground checks, three Demo­crats from those states voted against the magazine lim­its, and eight Demo­crats and in­de­pend­ents from those states op­posed the as­sault ban.

That pat­tern sug­gests that if Con­gress does not re­solve the is­sue be­fore then, the 2016 Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee will face over­whelm­ing de­mand from the party base to sup­port ex­pan­ded back­ground checks, sub­stan­tial pres­sure to em­brace the magazine lim­its, and some, but less com­mand­ing, pres­sure on the as­sault-weapons ban. Con­versely, the un­an­im­ous op­pos­i­tion to these meas­ures by sen­at­ors from the core Re­pub­lic­an states (ex­cept for Mc­Cain on back­ground checks) sug­gests the next GOP nom­in­ee may not sup­port any of them. Which means that the two parties could be ar­guing about these is­sues long enough for their po­ten­tial Elect­or­al Col­lege rami­fic­a­tions to mat­ter not just on the black­board, but on the ground.

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