The Power of the NRA
Published February 21, 2018 / Updated August 6, 2020

The Power of the NRA

To understand the NRA is to understand American Politics

by Chris Thomas

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Photo by David Levêque

Resistbot has a cool feature you should check out. If you send NRA to the bot it will tell you, to the penny, how much the National Rifle Association has spent in your House and Senate elections both for and against your current slate of legislators.

For some, like Floridians grappling with the recent shooting, that number is horrifying. Senator Marco Rubio has pulled in more than $3,000,000 dollars from the NRA. For others, the amount it has taken to buy a Senator or Representative seems almost insulting. Senator Mike Lee of Utah has received a paltry $8,291 dollars over his career from the NRA and yet received an “A” rating from the organization. His vote seems cheap by comparison.

More Than Money

But the check-book is just one tool in the NRA’s belt. Consider the case of Richard Lugar, a Republican Senator from Indiana. Lugar was one of a few Republicans who took nuanced positions on gun-control issues and he earned an “F” rating from the organization for his trouble. One expects Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer to hold NRA “F” ratings but not Republicans from Indiana. Lugar voted to prohibit lawsuits against gun manufacturers, voted against UN programs that could restrict gun ownership, and voted to allow guns in checked Amtrak baggage.

But he also voted to require background checks at gun shows, which is probably what got him that “F” rating.

For that, the NRA stripped Lugar’s previous “A” rating and backed a primary challenger — Richard Mourdock — in 2012. Mourdock won by an astonishing 20 points in the primary, but NRA money and influence was unable to save him in the general election. He said that a pregnancy as a result of rape was “something God intended to happen” and that was it for Richard Mourdock.

But let’s go back to that 20-point win in the primary. How did that happen?

Primary Power

Primaries are just smaller than general elections. Even in states that have “open primaries” — meaning that Democrats can vote in the Republican primary and vice versa — the turnout for primaries is low. For the Lugar/Mourdock primary, just 661,606 people turned out to vote. In the general election, just over 2.5 million people did. Nearly twice-as-many people voted for Mourdock in the 2012 general election as voted in the 2012 Senate primary for ANY candidate.

That smaller size means two things. Money spent against a candidate in a primary goes further than if that money is spent in the general election, much like how a loud voice in a library carries further than in a rock-concert.

It also means that a small, dedicated, and highly-motivated core of voters can swing a primary election even though they might not be able to make much difference in a general election.

The NRA uses both of these tactics masterfully.

During the 2012 primary, the NRA spent close to half-a-million dollars to defeat Lugar. Had Lugar won the primary they would have certainly backed him against Democrat Joe Donnelly. The purpose of the NRA’s investment was not to put an Indiana Democrat in the Senate but to make Lugar toe the line or replace him with someone who would.

But the reason Lugar lost was probably less because of the money and more because of the NRA’s loyal core of single-issue voters.

Mobilization and Merchandise

There actually aren’t that many NRA members out there: only about 5 million of them. Some back-of-the-envelope math suggests that there should be about 102,000 NRA members in Indiana though the figure is almost certainly higher. NRA members are far more likely to live in rural, red states.

Assuming all 102,000 of those NRA members voted in the Indiana primary, that would account for two-thirds of Mourdock’s margin of victory there. While that seems like a tall order, turning out voters is the NRA’s political speciality.

The NRA has newsletters, conventions, a 24-hour-a-day streaming news station, and a fantastic merchandising department. It offers classes, certifies range officers, sponsors youth hunting programs, gun shows, and more. It even has a cartoonish gun safety mascot. Yes, really.

Of course it's a bald eagle. What else would it be?

The point of nearly all of that is to get firearms owners invested in the NRA and responsive to its messaging. If you own a firearm, there is a very good chance that you’ve had a positive experience with the NRA. If you’re a member, you receive one of the NRA’s four — count ’em, four — magazines. These aren’t throw-away news letters but substantive publications with top-notch writing and photography to rival National Geographic.

Their members love this stuff.

But bundled into those magazines are inserts from the NRA’s “Political Victory Fund.” Those gun-shows feature ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ t-shirts and “from my cold dead hands” bumper stickers. Every aspect of the NRA’s outreach to hunters, target shooters, and other gun-owners is laced with highly targeted political messaging driving one, consistent, and highly memorable message: these are the people who want to take your guns; keep them out of power at all costs.

And that mobilizes voters.

The NRA’s most powerful weapon is their ability to get blocks of coordinated voters to deliver low-turnout races — primaries and state legislative elections — to their political friends.

If you are a Republican Congressman you, want to be the NRA’s friend because, if you’re not, you will have to fight to defend your job against both the Democrats and against your own party.

Tell Congress What You Think

If you want to make your Senators and Representatives think twice about doing the NRA’s bidding, you have to tell them what you think and commit to getting involved. Text RESIST to 50409. Or, if SMS isn’t your style, you can contact your government by talking to Resistbot on Facebook Messenger, Telegram, or Twitter. Resistbot will deliver your messages and, when primary season starts up, it will help make sure you get to the polls.

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