All In   |  April 29, 2013

New polling shows political price for opposing gun control

Chris Hayes discusses new polling showing Senators who opposed expanding background checks for gun sales are suffering in the polls. He is joined by Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling, and Leah Gunn Barrett, executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> good evening from new york , i'm chris hayes , thanks for joining us. there's a lot to talk about tonight, including the news that the first male athlete in a major american professional support came out of the closet today.

>>> and six months after superstorm sandy, there were more stunning reminders in the midwest about the dangers of extreme weather and new reports on just how much money it's costing you. plus, the latest in the fight over fixing the sequester cuts, plus click 3. but first, there's brand new data out today that has completely altered how i understand the politics of guns and more broadly the potential of the obama electoral majority. it's new polling from one of the most accurate firms in the 2012 election cycle and paints a picture of the aftereffects of the gun safety battle that i could not believe when i first read it. before i get to that, though, here is basic structure of the politics on this issue up until right now. there's a relatively small, well-organized group of people who are incredibly intense about opposing any and all regulation having anything at all to do with guns. this group is made up of the gun industry, the nra and for lack of a better word, let's say gun enthusiasts. the main thing to remember any time you're trying to wrap your head around gun policy in this country is what you see in these two charts. okay. one shows the number of guns that exist in this country going up. while the other shows simultaneously the number of gun-owning households is going down. what that means is more and more guns are being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. more people are not buying new guns, more gun owners are buying more new guns. and that smaller group of people is more intensely interested in defending a zero regulation vision of gun rights . for a long time, that smaller and smaller number of people with more and more guns have been able to bully everybody else into going along with their vision of a lrjly unregulated firearms marketplace. but then there was the shooting of then congresswoman gabrielle giffords and 19 others in tucson which left six of those victims dead, including a 9-year-old girl. and the mass shooting in the aurora, colorado, movie theater that killed 12 and wounded 58 others. and then the straw that broke the camel's back, the shooting at sandy hook elementary school . the open question after that was would the sheer horror of that event and the images of these dead children shake up something about the political status quo that had previously benefitted the small and intense and well organized anti- gun regulation group? when legislation expanding background checks crafted with nra consultation by a bipartisan coalition of senators went down under the weight of a filibuster, it would not have been crazy to conclude at that point that the answer was sadly no. the politics on the issue were set and a single tragedy or even a series of monstrous tragedies no matter how awful would not fundamentally alter them. and even though background checks were polling at 91% approval with 88% support among republicans and 88% support among gun owners , i, myself, was genuinely skeptical from the very beginning that polling meant anything at all. in fact, almost by definition, something that polls at 90% is something that people don't care much about. it's very easy to tell someone who calls you up on the phone. yeah, sure, i support the idea of universal background checks . the question is, a week later, a month later or a year and a half later when you're in the voting booth . are you going to be angry enough that your member of congress didn't vote for background checks , you'll want to make them bay for it. and on that question, the answer has seemed to be no. in fact, polling after the big belly flop failure of the background check bill seemed to bear that out. the pew research center asked people how happy or how disappointed they were about the failure of the background check bill. and among the people who had strong feelings, more people described themselves as very happy that the bill failed and angry. in other words, the politics that brought us our horrible gun policy six months ago, a year ago and five years ago seem to be the same as the politics we have now. and that is the reason this new polling out today was so very surprising to me. because it presents a shockingly high political price being paid at this moment by certain members of the senate who voted against universal background checks . jeff flake represents the state of arizona where 70% of owners were against background checks . 52% of arizona voters say they're now less likely to support him in the future because of that vote. same goes for rob portman whose constituents in ohio support universal background checks by a 51-point margin. and now, almost twice as many ohio voters say they're less likely to support them in the future because of his vote against expanding background checks . both of alaska senators have seen a net drop in their approval ratings since their votes against the background check amendment. lisa murkowski down 16 points from the february approval rating . and kelly ayotte , her approval rating has dropped a net 15 points since the last time checked in november. and 50% of new hampshire voters and puolling out last week say her no vote will make them less likely to support her in the future. you can tell how serious these numbers are being taken because in the case of kelly ayotte , the folks at the nra feel they need to provide her with political coverage firming up these radio ads defending her against expanded background checks .

>> senator kelly ayotte is focused on meaningful bipartisan solutions to our nation's problems. that's because kelly ayotte is not just a senator, she's also a mom who cares about protecting our kids. it's why kelly had the courage to oppose misguided gun control laws that would not have prevented sandy hook .

>> and this remarkable and surprising polling relates to another key bit of electoral analysis out today which is that we now know for the first time ever, black voter turnout was higher than white voter turnout . in ohio , pennsylvania, virginia, florida and colorado. that is further evidence of the true significance of the obama coalition. it represents a genuine progressive majority in this country. and when the obama coalition is activated and invested on an issue they can change political gravity. they can make things orbit in a different way than they would have otherwise. in the wake of the sandy hook massacre, under the leadership, under a sudden outpouring of money, organization, effort, rhetorical leadership and passion, we've seen the political gravity around the issue of gun safety move faster and further than anybody would've guessed it could just a few months ago. so, yeah, that vote was a setback, a big one. the real story is the politics that come after the vote. and the president said as much himself on the day the background check bill went down under a senate filibuster.

>> all in all, this was a pretty shameful day for washington . this effort is not over. i want to make it clear to the american people . we can still bring about meaningful changes that will reduce gun violence so long as the american people don't give up on it.

>> that was the president's message on the very day the effort belly flopped in the senate. the effort's not over, don't give up. and this weekend, senator joe manchin , one of the main sponsors of the measure made it clear not only is he not giving up on the effort, he's incredibly confident about his getting passed in the future. the question is, how can this new political landscape be sustained. joining us tonight tom jensen director of public policy polling, and here executive director of new yorkers against gun violence . thank you for being here, tom. were you surprised by these results?

>> i really wasn't because what you're seeing on these bills is that democrats and independents overwhelmingly support them and even a majority of republicans do. what these senators who have voted against background checks have done is forget the democrats and independents, they've put themselves to the right of most voters in the republican party . and these states we're talking about are really competitive states . dean heller won by one point last year, jeff flake won by three, in states where they won in a midterm but it's been going democratic in presidential years. these are folks who really have to present themselves as moderates in order to be successful politically in their states . and this vote really is not consistent with being moderate at all. it puts you to the right of 75% of your constituents.

>> that to me is what i think is significant. i think i underestimated, the policy indications and people do support background checks . i don't think that's really controversial. but the question is, how intensely do they care about that? and one of the things i think happened in the wake of this vote was that there was enough attention put on the vote and the names of people who voted against it and the popularity of the measure itself that it said something about that senator as in terms of their character. what kind of senator they are. whether they're just a craven kept coward who doesn't do what the majority of their constituents want because they're scared of the big bad nra or whether they have the guts to take on the nra . and that character issue seems to be resinating in a way i think i didn't think the policy issue would.

>> we thought that would pass easy a few months after sandy hook . i think what the american people are discovering is their representatives are more beholden and more loyal to an industry association the nra which represents gun makers than they are to the constituents' health and safety . and i think that makes constituents angry.

>> what is changeable here? was it the attention of the president? was it the president's calling people out on the day it failed which i think is in a really fascinating way captured everybody's attention and imagination. he didn't let it go down to defeat without sort of putting a lantern on it and saying look at what they just did. do you that's playing a role here?

>> i think the president's really important, but i think that a lot of politicians overestimate the power of the nra . we've consistently found in our national polling that voters by about a 15-point margin are less likely to vote for a candidate endorsed by the nra . the nra 's not that popular, has a 40%, 45% ratability rating. we did some polling for project new america that found even most people who view the nra favorably support background checks . so this is a situation where maybe the senators should be a little less scared of the nra and a little more scared of the average voters and their states .

>> do you think that's true? you and i have had conversations throughout this battle about just how powerful the gun lobby is and isn't. and when you said well, we thought we were going to get background checks easily and we didn't get that. that says the gun lobby is stronger than one might have anticipated and the political consequences here seem to point in the other direction.

>> i think it means our politicians are really weak and not representing their constituents. the gun industry after the assault weapons ban expired in 2004 , rifle production in the united states went up 38%. the gun issue is going to lose in sales. i think the american people are cottoning on to that. the president's stance, of course, is very important. but this was a basic thing. you don't want felons getting ahold of guns. you don't want people who are, you know, seriously mentally ill , you don't want domestic bad news abusers. and it's common sense . and americans have common sense .

>> they have common sense , but political attention spans tend to be short. and most of these folks, all of these folks, really, the earliest they'll face voters is a year and a half from now. so the question is, how much -- how much staying power does the backlash have? and what are you seeing in the polling that might indicate predictively how much this is going to be a problem and how effectively you can run an ad against kelly ayotte and jeff flake that hammers on this vote?

>> sure, well, i think the ones to look at. let's talk about ayotte and portman, they're up in 2016 . they got elected in 2010 in a terrible year for democrats where democrats didn't show up or enthused, but their states are pretty democratic. they've started voting pretty consistently. so next time they're up, it's going to be a presidential election , hillary clinton might be the democratic candidate, about absolute dynamo. there's no way they're going to get reelected unless voters see them as being centrist. and this gun vote three years later when they're up for reelection, i think for democrats, will be part of a broader narrative showing folks like ayotte and portman aren't centrist, just as extreme.

>> the point, they can't win just a breakdown party vote in those states increasingly. and this gets me to another strategic question. there's now talk in washington state of launching an effort to put background checks on the state ballot. one of the things i thought was interesting. initiatives that were successful partly because of the power of the people of the obama candidacy were able to bring to the polls. advocates in washington launching an initiative campaign after state lawmakers declined to require background checks on gun sales. supporters will need to collect 250,000 signatures, if they get enough signatures, it'll go to legislature next year and to the ballot if lawmakers fail to adopt it. does this seem to you a strategy that's worth pursuing for the gun safety movement?

>> absolutely. if your elected representatives are not doing what you want them to do, you have to find ways around that. ballot initiatives are one way to do that. you take alaska , both their senators voted against universal background checks . i think it's important to recognize that alaska has the highest rate of gun deaths in the country. they have very high gun ownership rates and extremely weak gun laws and take a state like new york which is passing the new york safe act . we have the fifth lowest rate of gun deaths, which is astonishing since we have new york city , largest city in the country by far and an incredibly low suicide rate . low gun ownership rates tend to be from states that supported background checks .

>> i looked at the data in alaska and was a little surprised because the cliche about the political culture in alaska is that this is not a place where -- this is not ohio and not new hampshire and it's not a place where you would expect to see them pay a price for this vote.

>> yeah, i mean, begich is up for reelection next year and what we saw, his numbers with republicans did not get any better at all, but his numbers with democrats and independents declined. you have a situation where his party base is less enthusiastic about it. even in alaska , and this is the state where we found the lowest support for background checks . even in alaska , it's still 60%.

>> in north carolina , tom jensen of public policy polling. thank you both very much.

>>> it is not every day a cancer doctor will tell washington politicians to, quote, come look my patients in the eye and tell them that waiting for a flight is a bigger problem than traveling farther and waiting longer for chemotherapy. more on that next.