I’ve seen a lot of analysis like this that NRA basically blew a wad of cash for nearly nothing. If you look at our overall results in Pennsylvania, things don’t look that bad. But the fact is that in a lot of key races, NRA got beaten badly.
NRA is certainly not alone. A good many groups on the right also sunk huge, often times much much larger sums of dollars into this election with even less to show for it. That will hopefully blunt the damage to NRA’s reputation, but this is going to hurt, for certain. What is the root problem here? I would boil it down to a few factors.
- For the past two elections, NRA has had a choice between Barack Obama and a candidate that could be charitably described as a compromise. John McCain was well understood to have gone all “maverick” on NRA at various points in his political career, and while Mitt Romney’s actual record on the issue wasn’t nearly as bad as his rhetoric, that signing statement was bound to dog him. NRA has never been in a position to endorse a candidate for President who was actually strong on our issue, and everyone knows it. NRA did much better in down ticket races where this was not a factor.
- No grassroots interest group can hope to do more than swing elections at the margins. When you don’t have a close election, it’s hard to claim interest groups were relevant. NRA suffered extensive losses in their U.S. Senate endorsements. Two candidates probably deserve the blame there, namely Mourdock in Indiana, and Akin in Missouri. Their ridiculous jabbering about rape poisoned the well of GOP Senate prospects, and took most of those races down below the NRA’s margin. That’s not something that could have been helped, because it was a messaging problem created by two bad candidates.
- The center-right groups are not reaching younger voters, largely because their use of technology is backwards. NRA actually does a better job in this area than most of the other groups that flushed millions of dollars down the toilet this election, but that’s not saying NRA’s efforts are particularly good. I believe a big component of Obama’s two victories have been his effective use of technology to reach and motivate younger voters, who are not reachable by TV, print or direct mail. We’re finally starting to see the technology revolution come to politics, and it’s OFA who is leading.
- The GOP didn’t run on gun rights at all this election cycle. Even Obama’s Fast and Furious scandal got nary a mention. Most pundits believed everyone wanted to hear about the economy, and that if the Democrats made this a culture war election, they would lose. Well, how did that work out? The Democrats pounded the GOP on culture war issues with single women and young people, and won those groups by large margins. Gun rights are actually a culture war issue where there’s no generation gap. Why not attack Obama on the issue?
The bigger question is what to do about it? It should be possible to motivate young people on gun rights. If there’s one thing that’s true about Millennials, is that they are extremely socially liberal. If guns are your “thing” — how you like to spend your Saturdays — most Millennials are fine with that. It’s your thing. Millennials don’t make strong value judgements on other people’s choices, and that is required to be a strong gun control advocate. The way to market gun rights to Millennials is to make them understand it as a lifestyle choice, and an issue of personal freedom. If you can do that, you’ll sell it to them. To that extent, I actually think blogs that heavily feature the shooting life are more useful for reaching that generation than political gun blogs like mine.
I think everyone on the right needs to understand the OFA machine. This is something I’m very curious about, but I don’t have time right now to try to dig to understand more of how it works. But every center-right group, including NRA, needs to start thinking more seriously about reaching younger voters, and using technology as a force multiplier in GOTV efforts. This means investing a lot more in technology spending, and bringing people on board who deeply understand how young people consume and share information. The days of raising money, awareness, membership and action, by sending oodles of direct mail or making phone calls, if not dead, is nearly so. If NRA and other groups keep messaging to the old, they will die with the old.