Why is Donald Trump pandering so hard to “the Second Amendment people”? Possibly because the National Rifle Association is the biggest financial backer of his campaign.
The NRA has spent $6 million in TV ads on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, which is $6 million more than the Trump campaign has spent on itself. (A super PAC, Rebuilding America Now, claimed in June to have $32 million in commitments from four donors, but has only spent $5 million on ads to date. Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson once made a pledge to create his own $100 million super PAC, but as of July has not followed through.)
Many traditional conservative constituencies have abandoned Trump. The Koch brothers won’t touch him, saving their cash for congressional campaigns. Only two percent of donors to Mitt Romney’s main 2012 super PAC had given to Trump as of June. The New York Times reported that, “Of the donors who gave at least $200 to Jeb Bush, Gov. John Kasich, Gov. Chris Christie or Senator Lindsey Graham in the Republican primaries, more of them have also contributed to Mrs. [Hillary] Clinton than to Mr. Trump.”
Republican hawks are repudiating him, with some embracing Clinton outright. Free-traders unhappy with Trump’s protectionism are warming to Libertarian Gary Johnson. Social conservatives feel politically homeless.
Yet the NRA is sticking with the Republican nominee.
The NRA’s endorsement was not without controversy in gun rights circles, as some couldn’t shake Trump’s attempt to triangulate on guns in his 2000 book: “Democrats want to confiscate all guns, which is a dumb idea because only the law-abiding citizens would turn in their guns and the bad guys would be the only ones left armed. The Republicans walk the NRA line and refuse even limited restrictions. I generally oppose gun control, but I support the ban on assault weapons and I support a slightly longer waiting period to purchase a gun.”
But even in that quote, you can see Trump’s affinity for the NRA’s “good guys with guns” worldview. So the NRA concluded, as one official told Politico, “Hillary Clinton is not an option. She must be defeated at all costs.”
That’s an understandable bet the NRA made, considering Clinton is running on the most explicit gun control platform of any Democrat since Al Gore. But it’s a bet that the NRA may lose big.
Many Democrats blamed Gore’s losses in places like West Virginia and Tennessee for his gun control stance. In turn, Democrats have downplayed the issue, arguably helping them win the 2006 midterms and the 2008 presidential elections.
But the politics of guns have changed since Sandy Hook. The intensity of the gun control constituency has deepened. Clinton used the gun issue to fend off the Sanders insurgency, and has not hesitated to campaign on it in the general. Yet Clinton is running well ahead of Trump, while Trump has damaged himself in his clumsy pandering to “the Second Amendment people.”
There was a time when conservatives saw the NRA as part of a broad “Leave Us Alone” coalition. But in the aftermath of the Great Recession and the rise of public mass shootings, too many people want to work together and help each other solve tough problems.
Such liberal thinking is anathema to the hyper-libertarians who run the NRA. The conservative ship may be sinking, but the NRA is determined to go down with it.