Bloomberg Businessweek senior writer Paul Barrett used reports that several Democratic senators may oppose surgeon general nominee Dr. Vivek Murthy to advance the tired media myth that the National Rifle Association can determine election outcomes at will.
Amid recent reports that Murthy's nomination could be delayed or withdrawn, Barrett wrote on March 17, "By all indications, the National Rifle Association and allied gun-rights groups have killed the nomination of Dr. Vivek Murthy to be the next surgeon general."
While Barrett acknowledged that "[i]t seems preposterous that Murthy's attitudes toward guns -- views roughly similar to those of the twice-elected president -- may preclude him from federal office," his analysis quickly veered off-track.
Claiming that "[t]he retreat from Murthy also provides a reminder that liberals' wishful thinking about the NRA being a 'paper tiger' deserves once and for all to be rejected," Barrett linked to a statistical analysis of recent House and Senate races by American Prospect contributing editor Paul Waldman that found NRA spending and endorsements has virtually no impact on election results.
Barrett went on to write, "But no matter how extreme the NRA's stance, its wrath in pro-gun states must be taken seriously. When the group activates its local affiliates to turn out single-issue voters, they can make a difference in close races."
But his dismissal of Waldman's work is flawed because it conflates perception with reality. It is no secret that the NRA wields influence in Congress, but Waldman's point is that this influence is outsized given the NRA's electoral ineffectiveness. Using a data-driven approach, Waldman, a former employee of Media Matters, demonstrated that members of Congress who oppose the NRA's agenda have little to fear at the ballot box.
However a lazy conventional wisdom in mainstream media -- that the NRA can punish politicians at will -- feeds into perceptions that successful candidates must toe the NRA line.
In a four-part series for ThinkProgress, Waldman offered a number of factors to explain the results of his statistical analysis, including a tendency by the NRA to spread its election spending thinly among numerous candidates and the NRA's inclination to use its endorsements on safe seats to inflate its success rate.
While media promoters of the NRA myth of electoral dominance are beginning to portray the NRA as the arbiter of the 2014 midterm elections, the pro-gun group's 2012 election spending was disastrous. During those elections the NRA spent at least $100,000 in seven different Senate races, backing the losing candidate in six instances. Of the $18 million the NRA spent on all federal elections in 2012, including $12 million spent against President Obama, more than 95 percent was spent on races where the NRA-backed candidate lost.
In November 2013, the myth was disproven again with the victory of pro-gun safety candidate Terry McAuliffe in a Virginia governor's race where guns were a major issue. Following heavy spending from both the NRA and supporters of gun safety measures, McAuliffe became the first Virginia governor since 1973 to hold the same political affiliation as the sitting president. The campaign manager for victorious attorney general candidate Mark Herring credited Herring's "strong record and advocacy for sensible gun legislation" as a reason why Herring won.
While Virginia is known as a "purple" battleground state, currently the top three state offices are filled by pro-gun safety Democrats and both of Virginia's representatives in the U.S. Senate voted to expand background checks on gun sales after the December 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Democrats have not held all five statewide elected offices since 1969 when the Dixiecrats were in charge.
If the media's conventional wisdom about the NRA's influence on elections was actually true, the NRA would never let such a situation arise in its own backyard.