NY Times gets it right: polls showing support for gun control doesn't mean the votes are there

(Courtesy Jan Rose Kasmir via AP)

How many times have you seen a news article talking about how most people support gun control? I know I’ve seen it a ton over the years. The media and politicians latch onto poll numbers as if they’re sacrosanct, telling us this proves the public supports them.

Then the election rolls around and gun control doesn’t seem to make a blip on the radar.

Over at the New York Times, they decided to delve into just why that is.

It’s one of the most puzzling questions for Democrats in American politics: Why is the political system so unresponsive to gun violence? Expanded background checks routinely receive more than 80 percent or 90 percent support in polling. Yet gun control legislation usually gets stymied in Washington and Republicans never seem to pay a political price for their opposition.

There have been countless explanations offered about why political reality seems so at odds with the polling, including the power of the gun lobby; the importance of single-issue voters; and the outsize influence of rural states in the Senate.

But there’s another possibility, one that might be the most sobering of all for gun control supporters: Their problem could also be the voters, not just politicians or special interests.

Oh, blaming the voters, right?

Not really.

You see, the argument being made isn’t that the voters are somehow wrong, but that issue polling is, well, useless.

All of these theories may have merit, but the results of referendums add another possibility: The apparent progressive political majority in the polls might just be illusory. It simply may not exist for practical purposes. And the tendency for referendum results of all ideological colors to underperform the polls may betray an overlooked dimension of public opinion: a tendency to err toward the status quo.

It would be wrong to say that the results simply prove the polls “wrong,” strictly speaking. Initiative and referendum results are not a perfect or simple measure of public opinion. The text of the initiatives is different and more complex than a simple national poll question. Some voters who may support a proposal in the abstract may ultimately come to oppose its detail. The context is very different as well. The vote follows a referendum campaign that can shift public opinion.

And the act of voting to enact an initiative into law carries far more responsibility and consequence than a carefree response on a survey. When in doubt, many voters may adopt a lowercase “c” conservative position in the ballot box. All together, it is no surprise that initiatives and referendums tend to underperform their support in the polls.

Honestly, that makes a great deal of sense.

There’s also the fact that many people who say they support gun control tend to have greater priorities when it comes to issues while gun-rights supporters tend to be more single-issue.

But the Times looked at background check referendums to reach this conclusion. These were cases where people were voting directly for gun control, rather than for politicians who promised to pass such measures. That should have negated any such bias.

Yet the actual support was much, much lower than how it polled.

As such, the explanation that people are more likely to say whatever on a poll makes a lot of sense.

There’s also the fact that polling means you’re talking to a person. As humans, we have a tendency to want to be liked by someone else, for the most part. As such, if a given position has been presented as an undeniable moral good, then some will espouse support for that position even if they don’t agree with it.

In other words, they’re telling the pollster what they think the pollster wants to hear, not what they actually think.

Either way, though, the point remains that support for gun control isn’t really what the polling says.

So what does this actually mean?

Well, for one thing, politicians don’t need to pay that much attention to issue polling, particularly on guns. After all, if the support shown by polling is really that soft, there’s no advantage to capitulating to gun control proponents’ demands, something a number of senators should keep in mind right about now.