Support for gun control measures is often considered politically risky territory for politicians. But after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, some have suggested that it might not be so difficult for politicians to support new gun restrictions this time around, and that it might actually be politically beneficial for Democrats. The results of a new HuffPost/YouGov poll support the view that candidates will see little harm from supporting three of the major gun proposals supported by President Obama. In fact, the findings show that a Democrat might face political harm for failing to support the measures.
Between Feb. 21-23, The Huffington Post and its polling partner YouGov interviewed a representative sample of 2,000 Americans, 1,000 of whom were randomly assigned to see each of two sets of questions. Every respondent first answered a "generic ballot" question asking which party's candidate he or she would vote for in the district where he or she lives if an election were held today.
In each case, the next three questions asked the respondent to imagine an election in which one candidate supported and one opposed each of three gun proposals: Universal background checks for gun purchases, a high-capacity magazines ban and an assault weapons ban. One set of respondents saw questions in which only the Democrat supported each proposal, and for the other set of respondents it was the Republican who supported each proposal.
Note that the overall percentage saying they'd support each generic candidate (before being given the hypotheticals in which each candidate took a different position on gun control) is slightly different between the two sets of respondents because of random variation between the two samples.
The results show that being the only candidate to support background checks would be politically advantageous for a candidate of either party. Either candidate gained supporters by being the only candidate to support background checks (by 9 percentage points for a Democrat and 8 percentage points for a Republican). A Democratic candidate also saw a dramatic 14 percentage-point loss in supporters for not supporting background checks, while a Republican candidate saw a smaller 3 percentage-point loss.
For a high-capacity magazines ban or assault weapons ban, there was little net change from initial support if it was only the Democrat who supported them. The Democrat gained 4 or 5 percentage points of support, respectively, but the Republican also gained about 2 percentage points of support, leading to only a small gain in the Democrat's initial 12 percentage-point lead.
But if the hypothetical Democrat failed to support those proposals and his opponent did, the Democrat saw a dramatic loss of support, of 9 or 8 percentage points, respectively, for a high-capacity magazines ban or an assault weapons ban. The Republican who did support the proposals also gained 4 percentage points of support in both cases, leading to an evenly matched race when the Democrat initially held an 11 percentage point lead.
In the case of each gun proposal, regardless of which candidate supported them, respondents who initially said they were undecided eventually favored the hypothetical candidate who favored the gun control proposal. This implies that for voters on the fence, support for the gun proposals may be a factor in a candidate's favor, though this movement could largely reflect initial undecideds who, if pressed to lean towards one candidate or the other, would have said they supported that candidate anyway.
While one might expect regional differences in this pattern, and in particular that support for gun laws might be more politically harmful outside of the Northeast in areas where reported household gun ownership is higher, there was no region in which respondents were less likely to support the candidate who backed the gun measures than the generic candidate of the same party.
It's important to note that this experiment may overstate the political impact of support for gun laws. Most voters will probably not consider this issue in isolation, while the survey questions isolate support for the proposals as the only salient knowledge about a candidate other than party identification. And there's little indication that gun control will be the most salient issue for most Americans. In a January Pew Research Center survey, "strengthening gun laws" ranked far down a list of public priorities for the president and Congress this year.
But the results do show that, far from being a political liability, support for Obama's gun measures seems to be a point in favor of candidates across the country.
The HuffPost/YouGov poll was conducted Feb. 21-23 among 2,000 U.S. adults, 1,000 of whom were randomly assigned to see each set of questions. The poll used a sample selected from YouGov's opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population. Factors considered include age, race, gender, education, employment, income, marital status, number of children, voter registration, time and location of Internet access, interest in politics, religion and church attendance.