It’s not about money.
The National Rifle Association does spend a lot of money on politics, which makes it seem like a giant right-wing bogeyman. The gun-rights group spent $54 million during the 2016 election cycle, including $30 million to help Donald Trump get elected president. Among outside groups helping fund elections, it ranked 11th, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
But spending on Trump’s campaign in 2016 totaled nearly $340 million, with the NRA providing less than a tenth of that. Total Trump campaign spending will probably be much higher in 2020, since there aren’t a slew of Republican candidates splitting up prominent donors this time around. Based on money alone, in other words, the NRA will matter less to Trump as an incumbent than it did when he was a maverick candidate taking on a Clinton campaign with nearly twice as much money.
Listen to the podcast below. Subscribe here.
Yet Trump seems to be in thrall to the NRA all the same. As president, Trump has repeatedly flip-flopped on gun policy, generally backing tougher gun-control measures in the gloomy aftermath of mass shootings, then changing his mind as memory of the carnage fades. Overall, he has done nothing, and input from the NRA seems to be a deciding factor. After the recent massacres in El Paso and Dayton, for instance, Trump said he supported new measures to expand background checks. But then he spoke with NRA officials, and if history is a guide, he’ll promptly lose enthusiasm for new gun-safety measures.
Trump doesn’t need to placate the NRA for its money. The group almost universally supports Republican candidates, and there’s no chance it would swing to support whatever Democrat ends up running against Trump. Nor will it withhold money from Trump, especially since Democrats are pushing hard for new gun-control measures.
What Trump does need is every possible vote from gun-rights supporters. And that may explain why he vacillates on gun policy, even though large majorities of Americans favor sensible new gun laws such as banning assault-rifle sales and expanding background checks.
Trump’s approval rating is net negative by about 11 percentage points, according to the Fivethirtyeight.com composite of polls. He’s underwater in key swing states he needs to win in 2020, such as Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, according to Morning Consult. At least three possible Democratic nominees would beat Trump if the election were held today, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
Can’t risk alienating these gun owners
Trump’s so-called base will vote for him no matter what. But that base represents only 25% or 30% of voters — not nearly enough for reelection. Can Trump risk alienating die-hard gun owners and still win over enough voters beyond his base to earn another four years? That could be tough.
A group called Gun Owners of America, claiming to have 2 million members, says Trump will lose the votes of some gun owners if he supports any kind of new gun-safety law. The NRA probably tells Trump the same thing. That could be an empty threat: Again, gun-rights activists aren’t likely to drop Trump and vote for a Democrat.
But there are gun owners who don’t belong to the Trump base, and some of them favor stronger gun laws. Among Republicans, 41% say they own a gun, according to the Pew Research Center. But so do 16% of Democrats and 36% of Independents. Trump isn’t likely to get Democratic votes in 2020, but Independents are crucial to him.
Among all Americans, 57% say gun laws should be stricter, according to Pew. Not surprisingly, 80% of Democrats or people who lean left want stricter gun laws. But so do 28% of Republicans and those who lean Republican. That 28%, which includes some Independents, is the key. They might support Trump if pushed for modest new gun-safety laws. And if he doesn’t, they might support a Democrat —such as Joe Biden — who’s otherwise relatively centrist.
The intangible is leadership. A strong, committed president could move public opinion on guns at least a little bit, if he argued with conviction. A Republican might even be able to nudge Congressional holdouts like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. But gun policy isn’t a Trump passion, the way immigration and trade are. Unless Trump sees a clear benefit to his reelection odds, he’ll probably keep playing defense on the issue.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman