- - Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Given the lack of empirical data, the common wisdom among candidates, campaign managers and pundits is that while gun rights may be in an issue in Southern, Western and rural areas, candidates running in suburban districts should be leery of NRA support. The NRA’s 2014 exit polling focused on just such a congressional district to see if the conventional wisdom is correct.

Turns out it’s wrong.

Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District is in many ways a quintessential suburban district. It is a Democrat-leaning swing district with more than three-quarters of its voters hailing from urban areas. Democrats had lost only one congressional race in the district since 1996 when then-Rep. Tom Latham, who had been moved into the district as a result of redistricting, won the seat narrowly in 2012. Latham carried the seat even as President Obama was winning it in 2012, and he decided to retire rather than run again last fall. This is just the sort of district in which many believe the NRA can do little to affect the outcome and may actually hurt the chances if it becomes heavily involved.

In spite of the common wisdom, the NRA did go into the district heavily and polled afterward to measure the impact of its efforts on the ultimate outcome, which resulted in the election of Republican David Young by 10 points. Young won the nomination after a brutal primary and convention fight with four other candidates, and he faced former state Sen. Staci Appel in the general election. She led in many polls right up to Election Day.

The NRA exit polls found that the NRA favorable image in the district stood at 53 percent positive to 36 negative, while even after the election Ms. Appel was viewed more positively by voters than the winner. When asked how they voted, however, those with a favorable view of the NRA voted 81 percent to 14 percent in favor of Mr. Young, giving him the winning margin overall.

Asked why they voted for Mr. Young, 65 percent of his voters told the pollsters they did so because he represented a “better choice” for the district than his opponent, but 31 percent said they voted for him “to show opposition to President Obama and Staci Appel’s gun control agenda.” Among voters who gave the NRA a favorable rating, 66 percent said the NRA endorsement and support of Mr. Young made it more likely that they would vote for him, while only 8 percent said the NRA message pushed them the other way. These are telling numbers in a district like Mr. Young’s because the common wisdom held that while the NRA involvement might motivate gun owners and Second Amendment supporters, it would turn off others and could hurt, rather than help, the candidate the NRA was endorsing.

That may have been the common wisdom, but the empirical evidence suggests it just isn’t true.

In Iowa’s 3rd District, as in Colorado and North Carolina, roughly half of the men and women who voted in the 2014 elections were inclined to view the NRA favorably and all voters expressed more “trust” in what the NRA said in its advertisement and commercials than in ads from other groups.

The only “outside” group close to the NRA in terms of credibility with voters was the Chamber of Commerce, and in most districts and states more people trusted what the NRA said in 2014 than the Chamber.

In combination, the results of the exit polls released this week by the NRA tell a story that proves much of the common wisdom about the group and its influence is wrong. The NRA’s message doesn’t appeal simply to a small segment of the general electorate, but to fully half of those who go to the polls in urban, suburban and rural districts. And those favorable to the organization, trust and tend to act on its messages. In close races, the evidence underscores the accuracy of the anecdotal stories about the NRA’s effectiveness at affecting the outcome.

What’s more, the NRA message overcomes the clutter and clatter of campaign noise and reaches those it is intended to reach. People remember NRA ads, and those who agree are heavily influenced by them while other voters — who critics of the organization would argue might vote against the NRA-favored candidate —don’t do so in any significant numbers. The NRA exit poll results released this week may well change the common wisdom of political consultants as we approach 2016.

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