The Myth of NRA Dominance Part II: Overrated Endorsements

In the first post in this series on the myth of the National Rifle Association’s power, I took apart the myth of the influence of NRA spending on congressional elections. In today’s installment, I will address the question of the NRA endorsement, something sought by not only Republicans but many Democrats as well. The organization’s stamp of approval, it is believed, not only sends a clear message to Americans who own guns, but brings with it indispensable grassroots organizing muscle that can make all the difference in House and Senate races.

The NRA endorsement, however, is seldom examined in anything resembling a systematic way. When we do so, we find that like the alleged power of the NRA’s money, the power of the NRA’s endorsement is largely a myth. There are some kinds of races where the endorsement might make a small difference, but these are only a tiny fraction of all the endorsements the group makes.

There are a few critical things to understand about NRA endorsements. First, they are overwhelmingly given to Republicans, as one might expect. But just as important, they are overwhelmingly given to incumbents. Over the last four elections, 86 percent of NRA House endorsements went to incumbents. In fact, not a single Democratic challenger won the group’s endorsement (though some certainly tried). And if you’re a Republican incumbent, the endorsement is almost guaranteed: 90 percent of GOP House incumbents got the endorsement in 2004, 91 percent in 2006, 96 percent in 2008, and 97 percent in 2010.

So contrary to what one might expect, the NRA endorsement isn’t delivered as a saving grace to a candidate struggling in a tough race. Instead, the typical NRA endorsee is a Republican incumbent from a strongly conservative district strolling to an easy victory. Over these four elections, 82 percent of NRA endorsees won their races by 10 points or more, and 62 percent won their races by 20 points or more. In other words, the NRA endorsement is mostly a reward for past service. In fact, in these four elections, the NRA endorsed a total of 106 House candidates who ran unopposed, and even donated money to 96 candidates with no opponent.

That isn’t to say an NRA endorsement can never have a positive impact on a candidate’s fortunes. But when I performed a series of regression analyses on these data to try to find such an impact, the results showed that an NRA endorsement has a significant effect in only a narrow sliver of races.

This regression analysis examined all House races where the margin of victory was 20 points or less (thereby excluding races that were not seriously contested), and controlled for the amount of money each candidate spent and the partisan character of the district (using a more precise version of the Partisan Voting Index developed by Charlie Cook, which averages the results of the last two presidential elections in each district). This allows us to see whether, holding constant the key measurable factors that should influence the outcome, an NRA endorsement is associated with better results for the endorsee. The results were as follows:

  • Republican incumbents in contested races get no statistically significant advantage from getting the NRA’s endorsement; they do no better than those who are not endorsed.
  • Democratic incumbents who are endorsed by the NRA get no statistically significant advantage from being endorsed.
  • Republican candidates in open seat races get no statistically significant advantage from an NRA endorsement (the group endorsed only a few Democrats in open seat races, too few for meaningful statistical analysis).

So nearly every NRA endorsee gets nothing from the organization’s nod. There is, however, one group that gets a small boost: Republican challengers who get endorsed when they run against Democratic incumbents do about 2 percentage points better than similar candidates who don’t get the endorsement.

That may mean that in certain cases at certain times, an NRA endorsement can help a little (and one can be certain that since the organization endorses few challengers, it picks those candidates carefully, looking for ones it thinks have a good shot at winning). But those races form a tiny portion of their endorsements: only 5 percent of the NRA’s endorsements go to Republican challengers. In other words, in all but a tiny number of races, the NRA endorsement is essentially meaningless.

This finding of a 2-point boost for Republican challengers is consistent with the one prior study that directly examined the question of the NRA’s electoral effect, a 2004 study looking at the 1994 and 1996 elections. Those researchers also found that Republican and Democratic incumbents got no help from an NRA endorsement, but Republican challengers got an almost identical two-point boost. The NRA might argue that even that small and conditional an effect of their endorsements is still meaningful: after all, in a close race in the right district, it could make all the difference. And it could – but how often does that happen?

The answer is: not very often. In 2004, all of the 4 NRA-endorsed challengers lost to their Democratic opponents, as did all 4 NRA-endorsed challengers in 2006. In 2008, 11 out of the 12 NRA-endorsed challengers lost, and the one who won (Texas’ Pete Olson) won by 7 points. In 2010, there was a much larger group of NRA-endorsed challengers, 36 in all. Eighteen of them lost, and of the 18 who won, only 4 beat their incumbent Democratic opponents by 4 points or less (meaning a 2-point boost in the challenger’s total would have been decisive). That means that according to this analysis, in the last four federal elections, in which the NRA made a total of 1038 endorsements in House races, the group could claim credit for a grand total of 4 wins.

Obviously, each of these races had its own particular dynamic; the endorsement will not produce the same effect at all places and at all times (and there are some Democrats who attribute their own victories in part to the fact that their Republican opponent was endorsed by the NRA). But over the broad sweep of the country, it is clear that the NRA endorsement, and all the grassroots mobilization and get-out-the-vote effort that is supposed to come along with it, make virtually no difference.

Many interest groups endorse candidates, but it is fair to say that few find their endorsements as eagerly sought as the National Rifle Association. And there may be a few races here or there in which an NRA endorsement has a meaningful impact on an election’s outcome. But it seems clear that those cases are few and far between. Like the conventional wisdom about the impact of NRA money, the prevailing beliefs about NRA endorsements are more mythology than reality. In the next post in this series, I will address another area in which there are widespread misconceptions: the place of guns in American opinion and American homes.