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gun control: median voter 1, elite action 0

In the Spring, I was teaching our first year graduate course. I start with rational choice theories and then move on. To illustrate the difference, I used gun legislation. After the Newton shootings, did the class think that we’d have more gun control? The hypotheses:

  • Median voter theorem – NO – the average voter is happy with current gun laws.
  • Elite theory – YES – it was clear Obama and Biden wanted more gun control.

Now we know the answer, the Median voter won. The rest of the class went with elite theory. Somebody owes me some money!

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Written by fabiorojas

August 28, 2013 at 12:03 am

10 Responses

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  1. Isn’t this more about intensity of opposition rather than the position of the median voter? If I’m not mistaken, polls tended to show that most voters supported the gun control measures proposed by the Obama administration. It was the intensity of opposition (and perhaps behind the scenes lobbying efforts) among the minority that won the day.

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    JD

    August 28, 2013 at 1:15 am

  2. After Newtown support for gun rights dipped a bit, but not significantly, and quickly returned to about an even split among Pew’s sample. http://www.pewresearch.org/key-data-points/gun-control-key-data-points-from-pew-research/

    Recourse to unobservables like the alleged conservative conspiracy doesn’t work, at least not here. Gun rights are a populist symbolic totem of American revolutionary tradition and anti-authoritarianism. The NRA may be vocal, and disgusting depending on your beliefs, but they represent a common sentiment.

    If you don’t like it you can geeeiiiit out. ;)

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    grahamalam

    August 28, 2013 at 6:01 am

  3. Yeah, but look at attitudes toward specific proposals:

    From January (2013): http://www.gallup.com/poll/160085/americans-back-obama-proposals-address-gun-violence.aspx

    April (right after the vote): http://www.gallup.com/poll/162083/americans-wanted-gun-background-checks-pass-senate.aspx

    Clearly legislators were not fearing the median voter – even 45% of Republicans thought expanded background checks should have passed. What they feared was the extremely vocal and highly mobilized minority of people opposed to the measure and the extremely well funded and well organized gun manufacturing lobby. Acknowledging the existence of groups that exert political influence out of proportion to their popular support is not a “conspiracy theory” – it’s basic political science.

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    JD

    August 28, 2013 at 6:21 am

  4. Good on the specific proposal data — wasn’t aware. I think the Pew data capture a more fundamental sentiment, even if it’s ideology-level, monkey-say. I tend to believe broader ethical heuristics motivate behavior more than particular considerations of the qualities of policies (channeling Lakoff here). And I guess I’m arguing that when we’re talking “popular support,” we’re not talking about a pollster going out and asking someone how they feel about the most recent sound-bite about gun control they heard on CNN.

    Is there evidence that the gun lobby has more money and lobbyists in Washington than gun control advocates? Even broader, is there evidence supporting the idea that conservatives have a better funded and better organized lobby in Washington generally than lefties? I honestly don’t know.

    I tend to not read a lot about day-to-day policy debates. It makes me feel superior and helps maintain philosophical consistency. God bless academia.

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    grahamalam

    August 28, 2013 at 8:32 am

  5. Money raised and spent by lobbying groups is not an unobservable. It’s not a conspiracy theory to say that gun rights lobbying groups raise and outspend gun control organizations by a very, very conservative estimate of 5 to 1. And in reality, it’s higher. I don’t have time to find citations, so a cursory look will do. And whether you like the Center for Responsive Politics or not, it’s really no matter, the data isn’t so bad that such significant disparities can be explained away.

    Gun Control: http://www.opensecrets.org/industries/indus.php?ind=Q12
    Gun Rights: http://www.opensecrets.org/industries/indus.php?ind=Q13

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    Scott Dolan

    August 28, 2013 at 2:09 pm

  6. Thanks for the links, Scott. That’s illuminating.

    And Center for Responsive Politics data are just fine. I don’t really get behind the old “so and so and such and such research group are politically motivated, therefore everything they say is a lie or fatally sloppy,” sentiment among social scientists. The vast majority of people are honest folks who are trying to make an honest case for their beliefs and concerns.

    In fact, positivist social scientists tend to be less aware of their own biases than interest group researchers, considering the normative ethics of positive social science are to deny and repress one’s politics and ethics. It works the same way abstinence training does for teenagers — just drives the dangerous and inevitable behavior underground.

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    grahamalam

    August 28, 2013 at 2:33 pm

  7. In addition to money and political aggressiveness, I wonder if another aspect of the pro-gun (NRA) success is their focus. I remember years ago in my state, the legislature passed a bill mandating health insurance coverage for chiropractic care over the strong objections of the American Medical Association. The chiropractors are not stronger or better financed than the doctors, but what the politicians said was: the AMA comes in wanting a whole bunch of stuff and we cannot give them everything they want anyway while the chiropractors wanted only one thing to make them happy.

    Perhaps if I knew the literature, I’d realize this pattern is a well-established finding in political science?

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    olderwoman

    August 28, 2013 at 3:28 pm

  8. @Fabio

    Median voter theorem tends to do a well on highly visible, single issue items (much like the gun control bill proposed). Though I think equating an elite theory approach with the position of President Obama and Vice President Biden is a mischaracterization.

    When it comes to getting a bill passed, the Executive Branch’s power is limited mostly to veto power, influence within their party, and party control of Congress. Constitutionally, they are in a tight spot when it comes to gun control. In today’s day in age, it’s also checked by by whether or not there is cloture (60 votes) in the Senate. Which there is not. So any item on the President’s agenda must have the support of at least 5 members of the Republican party for it to be feasible. And that assumes the President has unanimous support from the Democratic/Independent Senators, which is not the case for gun rights (Reid in Nevada, Baucus in Montana).

    Also, I worry a little bit about focusing solely on yes/no votes for pieces of legislation that make it to the floor. Like JD hints at above, American politics works in a much more nuanced and complex way. The importance of lobbying and money operates at a different level (see Steven Lukes three dimensions of power). Interest groups, like the NRA, often use their influence to get access, and when possible to get caveats, amendments, and exemptions written into the back of bills or to ensure bills never make it on the agenda or to the floor (see Dan Clawson, Alan Neustadl, and others on this). Very rarely are interest groups able to sway an up/down vote on a highly visible piece of legislation. Which is often why the median voter theorem works well in explaining votes on single issue, highly visible bills. So the key here is the visibility of the issue.

    As an aside, we might hypothesize (and some have) that President Obama’s administration and Democrats have had some difficulty reaching across the aisle and getting legislation passed because of the tightening of spending at the federal level. Because of the recession, sequester, and other measures, the Obama administration and Democrats have had less to bargain/negotiate (earmarks, pet projects) with Republicans and members of their own party in return for support on some pieces of legislation that they’ve decided to pursue. Others also claim that President Obama’s administration is opposed to earmarking and pet projects (and his administration has claimed such publicly), though I am less convinced of this argument. But an elite approach would point to this level to show the importance of lobbying, bargaining, and deals that occur prior to a bill getting to the floor or items written into the backs of bills out of the purview of whether a Senator voted yea or nay. Even if the bill did pass, a good elite approach would focus on what the bill actually accomplished by sifting through the entire legislation (which in the U.S. is a tall task, and often doesn’t occur because of the complexity of the language and the amount of time required). This would help uncover more of what was at work with the interest group process. Not just the roll call for the votes, which often do mirror what voters want when the issue is highly visible.

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    Scott Dolan

    August 28, 2013 at 3:45 pm

  9. A follow up to my own comment, median voter theory is only going to make sense on politically activated issues. There are lots of bills that get passed because voters don’t really care about them one way or the other. I recognize this is not the case with gun control, but it is the case with the larger political landscape as you are trying to adjudicate theories.

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    olderwoman

    August 28, 2013 at 3:49 pm

  10. +1 olderwoman. Public choice theory still strong.

    Like

    grahamalam

    August 29, 2013 at 8:39 am


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