Giffords’s Gun-Control Group Plots Path Forward After Rough 2014 Debut

After few victories and a big controversy last year, Americans for Responsible Solutions is focusing on analytics to help it win future campaigns.

Democratic Rep. Ron Barber, left, with his former boss and predecessor Gabrielle Giffords
National Journal
March 1, 2015, 3:01 p.m.

Amer­ic­ans for Re­spons­ible Solu­tions, the group foun­ded by former Rep. Gab­ri­elle Gif­fords, entered the last elec­tion hop­ing not only to help their can­did­ates win, but to put the is­sue of gun vi­ol­ence front and cen­ter in cam­paigns around the coun­try. But over­all, it lost more House and Sen­ate races than it won, gun is­sues were rarely viewed as a hot-but­ton pri­or­ity, and in the one cam­paign where ARS made a big splash, it was for the wrong reas­ons.

Demo­crat­ic Rep. Ron Barber, who suc­ceeded Gif­fords in her Ari­zona dis­trict, lost his race des­pite more than $2 mil­lion spent by ARS. And per­haps the group’s most high-pro­file act of 2014 was to run a TV ad The Ari­zona Re­pub­lic‘s ed­it­or­i­al board called a “vile “¦ nasty piece of work.” The TV spot, which ac­cused Re­pub­lic­an Martha Mc­Sally of sup­port­ing policies that made it easi­er for stalk­ers to get guns, only spent a week on the air be­fore ARS pulled it down.

Now, the former con­gress­wo­man’s group is try­ing to ap­ply les­sons from the last elec­tion to find more suc­cess in fu­ture ones. The epis­ode in Ari­zona demon­strates the biggest chal­lenge go­ing for­ward: Put gun is­sues in the spot­light, but avoid a back­lash that mo­tiv­ates gun-rights sup­port­ers. To that end, ARS is in­vest­ing in ana­lyt­ics of the sort Pres­id­ent Obama’s polit­ic­al cam­paigns pop­ular­ized.

Last year, the ana­lyt­ics firm Hay­staqDNA in­ter­viewed thou­sands of voters across the coun­try about gun is­sues and used that data to de­term­ine which voters ARS should tar­get with mail and di­git­al ads — and which voters to avoid.

“For most groups, it’s just a bet­ter fo­cus of re­sources. For ARS, it’s ab­so­lutely crit­ic­al to its mis­sion,” said Hay­staqDNA pres­id­ent Mi­chael Si­mon, who man­aged ana­lyt­ics for Obama’s 2008 cam­paign. “There are people to whom that is­sue is ana­thema. They couldn’t af­ford to make mis­takes.”

For what it’s worth, Si­mon said he thinks it’s un­likely the back­lash over ARS’s ad con­trib­uted much to Barber’s nar­row loss, though it’s the mo­ment that stands out most in a cam­paign de­cided by only 167 votes. Si­mon said his firm’s re­search found that ARS helped sway “a few thou­sand” voters.

By in­vest­ing in ana­lyt­ics, ARS is tak­ing an ap­proach that has re­cently be­come main­stream in pres­id­en­tial and statewide races but hasn’t worked its way as firmly in­to is­sue-ad­vocacy yet.

“ARS has really taken on a sci­entif­ic ap­proach,” Si­mon said. “They’re able to go to a donor or act­iv­ist and tell them, this is how many people we per­suaded.”

But it’s also be­ne­fi­cial that ARS has learned which voters to avoid: the con­ser­vat­ives who will be more mo­tiv­ated to vote against the group’s can­did­ate by see­ing ARS ads dur­ing the loc­al news in­stead of miss­ing a quieter flow of mail to their neigh­bors’ houses.

“It’s a ques­tion of avoid­ing traps where it could be coun­ter­pro­duct­ive,” said Robert Spitzer, a pro­fess­or at the State Uni­versity of New York at Cort­land, who has writ­ten about gun polit­ics.

One of the group’s 2014 suc­cess stor­ies came in the mail. In Wash­ing­ton state, ARS sup­por­ted a bal­lot ini­ti­at­ive re­quir­ing back­ground checks for all gun pur­chases and op­posed an­oth­er ini­ti­at­ive that would have leg­ally un­der­mined the first.

“There was, to some ex­tent, con­fu­sion among voters about what the laws ac­tu­ally were,” said ARS spokes­man Mark Pren­tice. “And some voters be­lieve that laws were stronger than they ac­tu­ally are.”

ARS launched a tar­geted dir­ect mail cam­paign to 245,000 house­holds, of­fer­ing de­tails about the cur­rent laws and pro­posed laws to voters it thought it could win over and skip­ping house­holds that wouldn’t be re­cept­ive to the mes­sage. In a sur­vey, it found that sup­port for their favored meas­ure in­creased by more than 8 per­cent­age points among people who got their mail, while sup­port for the oth­er bal­lot meas­ure dropped by 5 points.

In the end, ARS came up with two vic­tor­ies in Wash­ing­ton: The back­ground check ini­ti­at­ive passed, and the op­pos­ing one failed.

Com­pared with the group’s losses in the House and Sen­ate, that may have seemed like a minor vic­tory. But it in­dic­ates a path of least res­ist­ance for gun-con­trol groups: Where­as can­did­ates who sup­port re­forms like ex­pan­ded back­ground checks can be painted as anti-gun act­iv­ists, bal­lot meas­ures al­low groups like ARS to stick to the spe­cif­ics, de­bat­ing the ex­act mer­its of a law.

That doesn’t mean they’ll fa­vor bal­lot ini­ti­at­ives at the ex­pense of spend­ing in con­gres­sion­al or gubernat­ori­al races, Pren­tice said. But after a rough first elec­tion cycle, it’s one area that of­fers prom­ise.

“We’ll be strongly con­sid­er­ing fu­ture bal­lot ini­ti­at­ives,” he said.

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