Fred Yang and Geoff Garin are partners in Garin-Hart-Yang Research, a Democratic polling firm that conducted research for Ralph Northam’s campaign.
After Ralph Northam’s lopsided victory in Virginia, it’s time to rethink a long-held political axiom: Democrats lose when they campaign on stronger gun laws.
Conventional wisdom on gun policy holds that despite widespread public support for common-sense gun safety measure, the only people who actually vote on the issue are those who oppose more gun regulations. As a result, Democratic candidates have been cautioned that they should be afraid of rousing the gun lobbying by taking clear stands on gun safety.
But Northam, a former Army doctor who has seen firsthand the damage that guns can inflict, understood that guns are no longer the third rail in Virginia politics. From his primary campaign through the general election, Northam ran on his record of fighting for measures to protect Virginians from gun violence. He spoke about his leadership on gun-safety issues in the wake of the mass shooting at Virginia Tech. He called for universal background checks for gun purchases. He embraced his NRA F-rating.
In so doing, Northam had allies. He boasted endorsements from groups such as Everytown for Gun Safety, which spent $1.4 million on his behalf, and found support among volunteers from Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, who knocked on doors and made countless calls on his behalf.
Northam’s forthrightness on gun violence drew the expected response from the National Rifle Association, which is based in Virginia. The NRA spent more than $1 million on negative television advertising and mailers attacking Northam.
But the NRA’s attacks on Northam clearly failed. His vote total improved significantly on the Democratic vote from four years earlier — not only in Northern Virginia, but in the Richmond media market, the Norfolk media market and the Roanoke media market — all places where the NRA ran its attack ads.
Even more striking is the fact that the exit poll conducted by Edison Media Research on Election Day showed that people who said gun policy was their top voting issue were as likely to vote for the Northam, the candidate who supported gun-safety measures, as for Ed Gillespie, the bearer of the NRA’s “A” rating. Seventeen percent of voters listed gun policy as their No. 1 voting issue (second only to health care), and they split their votes evenly between the two candidates. So much for the so-called “enthusiasm gap” on gun violence prevention.
The finding from the exit polls corresponds to what we were seeing in our pre-election surveys for the Northam campaign. Likely general election voters in Virginia said by a margin of 55 percent to 41 percent that they favored additional laws in Virginia to regulate the sale of firearms. The support for gun-safety measures was even higher in questions that specifically addressed measures such as universal background checks. In the inner suburbs of Northern Virginia, for example, 71 percent favored additional laws such as expanded background checks. In the Roanoke media market, voters supported these expanded measures 51 percent to 39 percent.
The election in Virginia took place against the backdrop of the tragic mass killings in Las Vegas and Texas, which likely raised the salience of the gun safety as a voting issue among those who feel the time has come to finally take action. These events occur all too often, and more voters are simply fed up with politicians who cower before the gun lobby in opposing sensible gun laws. At the same time, more voters are energized to support candidates such as Northam who are willing to take a stand for common sense on guns.
Only 10 percent of Northam’s voters opposed stronger gun laws, while 27 percent of Gillespie’s voters favored them, so Gillespie had more to lose from the issue than Northam did. There is a reason why Gillespie refused to publicize his NRA endorsement questionnaire: He knew that his answers would put him deeply at odds with mainstream voters, and voters would dislike the radical promises he made to obtain the NRA’s backing and $1 million support.