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How Obama Could Polarize the Gun Control Debate (And Still Help Himself Win)

- January 29, 2013

This is a guest post from Brown University political scientist Michael Tesler.


Media speculation abounds about how President Obama’s strong support for several recent gun control measures will affect public opinion.  As others have pointed out, the most likely outcome is partisan polarization.  Indeed, presidential position taking tends to divide Democrats from Republicans in mass policy assessments (see: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

Fortunately some unique experimental data collected by YouGov back in November 2009 sheds some light on the answer.  That survey asked a nationally representative sample of more than 3,000 registered voters whether they favored or opposed the assault weapons ban.  Our respondents, however, were randomly assigned to three different versions of this question.  One third of our sample was simply asked whether they favored or opposed the ban (“neutral condition”); another third were told that President Obama favored this legislation before we asked for their opinions (“Obama condition”); and a third group was reminded that President Clinton proposed this law in 1994 before we gauged their support for the proposal (“Clinton condition”).

The first figure below shows that those endorsements substantially increased support for the assault weapons ban.  In fact, only 44 percent of respondents in the neutral condition favored the assault weapons ban compared to 55 and 57 percent in the Obama and Clinton groups.

Not surprisingly, the next figure shows that Democrats were much more supportive of this gun control measure when told that either President Clinton or President Obama had proposed the legislation.  The upshot is polarization, whereby Democrats and Republicans were significantly more divided over the assault weapons ban in the two presidential conditions than they were in the neutral group.

More surprising is that the Clinton and Obama cues did not cause Republicans to decrease their support for the assault weapons ban.  To be sure, the artificial nature of the experiment, in which respondents were exposed to a Democratic endorsement without a Republican counter, could be responsible for this pattern.  Another possible reason for the asymmetric polarization, though, is that there was more untapped Democratic support for the assault weapons ban in these data than there was Republican opposition.  The figure above, for instance, shows that nearly 40 percent of Democrats did not support the ban in the neutral condition compared to just 25 percent of Republicans who did.  Obama’s use of the bully pulpit might therefore increase the number of Americans who favor the assault weapons ban by tapping into a reservoir of latent Democratic support.