For many Democrats, one of the more cringe-worthy moments of the 2004 election cycle is John Kerry’s notorious “I was for the war because I was against it,” which led to ample attacks from the right with respect to his supposed “waffling” on the issues. That said, sticking stubbornly to unpopular policies carries a number of costs as well, particularly within the domain of issues deemed important in the eyes of voters.
The April 14 debate reminded us of this tension that candidates face when public opinion shifts with respect to issues on which one has voted or made public statements, or when new information comes to light which might have informed that behavior. In particular, the issue that appears to repeatedly haunt Sen. Sanders is that of gun control, on which he has voted more consistently with his home state of Vermont, which is more pro-guns than is the national Democratic Party.
Sanders has voted to give gun manufacturers immunity from liability when those guns are used toward illegal ends, an issue that has been particularly heated in the context of such events as Sandy Hook. He has shifted a bit on the matter, indicating that Sandy Hook victims should be entitled to sue, though overall he has stuck by his record and its purported consistency, touting his adverse record by the National Rifle Association despite Clinton’s attacks on Sanders for not working to hold gun manufacturers accountable (particularly given his emphasis on corporate accountability), and despite the fact that the NRA had backed his candidacy in 1990. Admitting that he may have been wrong on the issue of guns is not a statement that we have seen from the Sanders campaign.
Admitting to being wrong – whether on guns, on war, or even on a narrower issue – does not come easily, in particular given the spotlight under which the candidates are operating in presidential election season. However, the cost-benefit analysis leaves a lot of questions as to why Sanders would not back away from his (prior?) positions on gun control, if for no other reason than strategy.
A number of southern states (e.g., Georgia, Texas, and Virginia) whose elections were held earlier this year rated gun control as important (sometimes even more important than the economy and ISIS) and an issue on which they must agree with the Democratic candidate for whom they vote. These are all states in which Hillary dominated. They are also all states in which the Democratic base is more notably minority, communities in which gun violence is a prevalent concern and communities in which Sanders is struggling to gain ground relative to white voters.
A recent survey of Americans on gun ownership reveals not only a widening partisan division in gun ownership and support for gun restrictions, but also a notable disparity between whites' and non-whites' rates of gun ownership, with 40 percent of whites owning guns compared with 14 percent of non-whites, and notable racial division in support for gun restrictions as well. In fact, these divisions over gun ownership are at their highest since 1977. Moreover, deaths from gun violence vary dramatically by race, both in number and by type, with whites more likely to die by suicide and African Americans more likely to die by homicide.
The African American community has been a reliably Democratic voting demographic, indeed being characterized often by political scientists as “captured.” However, it is not news that despite progressive politics, black voters have not been feeling the Bern. Part of this is attributable to Clinton’s solid record in challenging racial discrimination and issues disproportionately affecting minority communities (e.g., poverty, crime control). But part of it has to do with Sanders. For starters, while reliably Democratic, black voters are not always as socially liberal as are many of the white voters who Sanders has mobilized under his self-described “democratic socialist” policy agenda. And second, in a time in which mass shootings and other incidents of devastating crime, the issue of gun control remains all the more salient, leaving Sanders vulnerable when the issue comes up in debates and other campaign settings (which Clinton would be right to continue to address). With recent investigations into the institutional racism within the Chicago police force, we can reasonably expect the issue of crime and guns, and the relationship to racial tensions, to remain at the forefront for many voters.
Sanders has the misfortune of representing a state to the right of the country where gun control is concerned, and as a sitting Senator running for president, he is caught between the multiple constituencies that he seeks to represent. (And indeed, it is relatively easy to be pro-guns in Vermont, a state in which there is very little crime). The fact of the matter is, Clinton’s position on gun control in this period of racial tension and mass shootings is more in line with the national Democratic Party’s mainstream, and it is evidenced by the large states that she as won, Clinton voters’ priorities as indicated in exit polls, and the demographic groups that she continues to win over. While there are certain liabilities in shifting a public position, admitting to a more pro-gun control stance than he has supported in the past – whether out of growth as a politician or as a result of reflecting a broader set of public preferences and seeking to be responsive in turn – would likely serve him well moving forward.