The Senate's rejection of a popular expansion of background checks for firearms last month marked an abrupt end to the campaign for gun restrictions after the Newtown shootings. But the "no" votes of 46 senators also represented a political gamble: that voters would not punish them for going against public will.
The risk may be significant, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. Thirty five percent of registered voters say they could not support a candidate who voted against expanding background checks at gun shows and on the Internet -- even if they agreed with him or her on other issues. By comparison, 14 percent of voters would rule out a candidate who voted for expanded checks.
Somewhat surprisingly, the results are similar to the national numbers in states where both senators receive "B+" or "A" ratings from the National Rifle Association. Thirty-four percent of voters in those states say a vote against background checks would be disqualifying in a candidate, while 16 percent say support for expanded background checks would keep a candidate from winning their vote.
The same trend is true in congressional districts of House members with "A+" NRA ratings: 31 percent of people in those districts say they would reject candidates who support background checks, compared with 17 percent who rule out backing a supporter of background checks. In addition, 27 percent of voters in gun-owning households say they won't vote for a candidate who opposes expanded background checks compared with 17 percent who would oppose a supporter of broader checks.
It remains to be seen how many people will actually cast their votes on the issue. Just 15 percent said they were "angry" in a Post-Pew Research Center poll after the Senate voted down the background check proposal, a number that could shrink even further by the time the 2014 midterm election rolls around. And in January, just a month after the shootings in Connecticut, a Post-ABC poll found gun control was regarded as a far less important issue than the economy and government spending issues.
Still, the poll finds a large constituency of voters who say the issue of background checks is deal breaker, and therein the potential for a serious electoral force.
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Clement is a pollster with Capital Insight, the independent polling group of Washington Post Media. Capital Insight director Jon Cohen and pollster Peyton M. Craighill and Dan Keating contributed to this report.