Now that the smoke has cleared from the wreckage of this week’s Manchin-Toomey debacle, I believe you’re going to see some debate in the days ahead about a related question: Is offering no real answer to the problem of gun violence a sustainable position for the Republican Party over the long haul?
In a great piece, National Journal’s Ron Brownstein provides us with an interesting way to think about this question. Brownstein notes that the structural imbalances in the Senate — the excessive power of rural states; the need for a supermajority to break the filibuster — obscure the true significance of Manchin-Toomey’s defeat. While there’s no denying that the realities of the Senate make passage of gun legislation extraordinarily difficult, Brownstein notes that the potency of gun control as an issue is going to be increasingly beneficial to Democrats when it comes to the national electoral map, with real implications for how Republicans will have to approach it with an eye towards 2016:
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 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.
Brownstein argues that as 2016 approaches, the GOP as a party will be under increasing pressure to embrace expanded background checks — and if it doesn’t, it could “create hurdles for the GOP in the 2016 presidential race.”
Gun control appears to be an increasingly important issue among precisely the voters Republicans need to improve their standing among in order to remain competitive nationally — young voters, minorities, and suburban and college educated women, all three of whom are increasingly important to the Democratic coalition. A recent NBC/WSJ poll found a striking gender gap on the question, with 65 percent of women wanting stricter gun laws, with only 44 percent of men wanting the same. As the First Read crew put it: “It’s easily one of the largest policy gender gaps we’ve seen in years.”
What’s more, Democrats note that several GOP Senators up for reelection in 2016 in swing states may feel more pressure to evolve on the issue, such as Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire (which is rapidly suburbanizing), and Rob Portman in Ohio (where a recent poll found 80 percent support for expanded background checks). Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania is also up in 2016; thanks to the Philadelphia suburbs, he’ll likely stay on the gun control reservation. These Senators were all elected amid the Tea Party wave in 2010, Dems note, but will be running for reelection in a presidential year, which means boosted turnout among the aforementioned Democratic constituencies.
None of this is to say that we’re likely to see gun legislation pass anytime soon. Rather, the point is that one of the hidden lessons in the Toomey-Manchin defeat — one obscured by the imbalances in the Senate — is that Democrats have broad incentives to keep pushing this issue, thanks to shifting national demographics and changing priorities within the Democratic Party. Another sign of this: Dems with presidential ambitions — such as governors Martin O’Malley of Maryland and Andrew Cuomo of New York — quickly put their stamp on the issue after Newtown by rolling out ambitious gun control packages. That’s also a bet on 2016.
Which is to say that the shift in Democratic Party politics triggered by Newtown — in which Dems now prioritize gun control, in contrast to years and years of downplaying it, to avoid alienating culturally conservative downscale whites — will continue despite the defeat this week. That’s why Obama vowed to keep pushing on the issue, and that’s why you’re very likely to see Democrats continue to do just that.
UPDATE: It’s true, of course, that there seems to be a continuing intensity gap on the issue, with partisans on the right more worked up than those on the left. But a political infrastructure to challenge the NRA is now developing on the left, and over time it may be able to mitigate that imbalance.
UPDATE II: On the other hand, perhaps that intensity gap is overstated. A recent CNN poll found that a total of 71 percent believe it is extremely or very important to deal with gun policy this year.