In April 2008, Hillary Clinton, trailing Barack Obama late in the fight for the Democratic nomination, tried a new line of attack against her rival. She faulted him for opposing gun rights.
Obama’s infamous remark about rural Americans who “cling” to guns and religion had given Clinton the opening, which she sought to take advantage of several ways. Out-polling the Chicago senator among Democrats in non-urban areas, she turned to those voters in an effort to reverse the momentum of the race. In the lead up to Pennsylvania’s primary that year, Clinton said she no longer supported a federal handgun registry, which she had backed as a Senate candidate. She told stories of her father teaching her to shoot. She sent mailers courting gun-owning Democrats in Indiana.
“What might work in New York City is certainly not going to work in Montana,” Clinton said during a debate, referencing that cycle’s last primary state. “For the federal government to be having any kind of blanket rules that they’re going to try to impose, I think doesn’t make sense.”
Eight years later, Clinton is making the opposite case — and hoping for a different final outcome.
“Most of the guns that end up committing crimes in New York come from out of state,” Clinton said during a CNN debate in Brooklyn Thursday night. “They come from the states that don’t have kind of serious efforts to control guns that we do in New York.”
There are several explanations for Clinton’s change of tune. For starters, the full-throated calls for tougher gun laws that she has made since the beginning of her second White House bid reflect both a return to principles and a reading of the national moment: Last summer’s string of mass shootings, coming in the wake of those at Sandy Hook Elementary School and in Aurora, Colorado, have increased some voters’ interest in the issue.
But Clinton’s embrace of gun reform also offers strategic opportunities unique to the 2016 contest. This time around, Clinton is the Democrat dominating among African-Americans, while her opponent, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, fares better with working class whites. And despite much agreement between the two candidates on gun laws, two elements of Sanders’s record — his previous votes for a statute that affords broad legal protections to the gun industry, and against a background check law — give Clinton valuable contrasts to draw.
Early in the race, a blitz of ads Clinton aired in New Hampshire to call unflattering attention to Sanders’s positions put him on the defensive but fell far short of delivering his insurgent candidacy a knockout blow. Now that their increasingly hard-fought race has stretched into the spring, Clinton and her team may find another electoral benefit in making gun violence a campaign topic. Locking up delegates is now the name of the game. And by emphasizing the issue, Clinton positions herself to win new delegates at a higher rate than she wins votes.
The opportunity arises from an aspect of the party’s presidential nominating rules. In Democratic primaries, delegates are awarded proportionally by congressional district: The number of delegates is based on how many Democrats voted in recent elections — the stronger the Democratic vote in past elections, the more total delegates a district has up for grabs. Many of the most heavily Democratic districts, by turn, are majority black districts home to reliable supporters of stricter gun laws.
Anecdotally, that was clear before the Democratic race entered its current, decisive stretch. But thanks to new modeling from a progressive voter targeting firm, we can get a more empirical sense of just how Clinton’s positions may be contributing to delegate breakdowns.
Consider the results on April 7 in Wisconsin, where Sanders won the popular vote by 13 percent but claimed a narrower share of the crucial delegate haul, winning 48 to Clinton’s 38. (Clinton had already locked up the lion’s share of Wisconsin’s superdelegates, who can support a candidate regardless of voting results.) Days before the primary, with some opinion polls already showing her losing the state, Clinton held a high-profile anti-gun violence event at a black church in Milwaukee. The city sits in Wisconsin’s 4th district, which at 10 delegates offers the state’s largest delegate prize. When the ballots were tallied, Clinton narrowly topped Sanders in the district’s popular vote — the only district she won in Wisconsin — and split its delegates with him, denying him a bigger delegate windfall.
On Tuesday, Democratic primary voters go to the polls in New York, which awards 291 delegates. Next week, the five states holding votes will include Connecticut (70 delegates), Maryland (118), and Pennsylvania (218). In those states, district maps show that Clinton’s gun positions will again find the most receptive audiences in the places with the most delegates at stake. And since Sanders needs big delegate wins to overtake Clinton, that may be no small thing.
It takes 2,383 delegates to win the Democratic nomination. On Monday, Clinton had 1,758, including superdelegates, to Sanders’s 1,076. (Just over half of the Democratic delegates — 56 percent — are awarded at the congressional district level. Others are awarded at the statewide level.)
Clarity Campaign Labs, a data strategy group that works primarily for Democrats but is not affiliated with either presidential campaign, has developed a model that assigns voters a score, out of 100, indicating their propensity to support gun control. (The higher the number, the more likely the voter favors strong restrictions on firearms.) In the upcoming primaries, says John Hagner, a partner at the firm, “The kind of Democrats who agree with Hillary on guns tend to live in areas that have the most delegates.”
Maryland’s largely rural first congressional district, represented by Republican Andy Harris in the House, for example, awards six Democratic delegates. Clarity’s average gun violence prevention score for voters in that district is 62.2. Maryland’s majority-black fourth congressional district, based in Prince George’s County outside Washington and represented by Democrat Donna Edwards, awards 10 delegates. Clarity gives the district an average gun violence prevention score of 71.5.
In Pennsylvania, surveys have put Clinton on pace to win again, even as her statements on gun policy stand in stark contrast with her 2008 positions. The Clinton of 2016 may alienate gun-owning Democrats in rural central Pennsylvania, but that swath of the state also offers the fewest delegates. By contrast, in Pennsylvania’s second congressional district, which includes most of Philadelphia and awards seven Democratic delegates (more than any other district in the state), Clarity calculates a gun violence prevention score of 74.5. And the second district is surrounded by other delegate-rich districts with similarly high propensity to back gun reform.
The pattern holds throughout the states voting over the next two weeks. Clarity’s data is proprietary, and the firm would release only some of its numbers. But what they show is a clear split between smaller and larger districts on the issue of guns. In districts that award five delegates, the average gun violence prevention score is 68.4, says Hagner. Democrats in districts with eight delegates have an average score of 78.3.
“It’s a major difference,” says Hagner. As a candidate, “you’d rather be aligned with the most popular opinion in the district where the most delegates are” — especially when delegate totals are make-or-break.
To ensure that voters remember where she and Sanders stand, Clinton is hammering her opponent with sometimes unflinching messaging. Last week, she appeared with Erica Smegielski, whose mother died the Sandy Hook shooting and who has publicly demanded that Sanders apologize for opposing a lawsuit that families of some of the victims have filed against the manufacturer of the AR-15 used in the shooting. (Three days later, during the Democratic debate at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Sanders reversed course on legal protections for the gun industry, saying, “They have the right to sue, and I support them and anyone else who wants the right to sue.”) Mothers of urban gun violence victims have become powerful proxies for Clinton. At the Milwaukee event, one told the crowd, “If you want my vote you better work for it. I’m not going to give it to you just because you say you’ll do free college, because if my child is dead he can’t go to college.”
Parrying Clinton’s attacks, Sanders has argued that his views on gun laws are a product of his decades representing Vermont, where hunting is popular, gun regulations scarce, and violent crime relatively low. But by mounting that defense, he has left himself vulnerable to a new criticism. Some Clinton backers have suggested that the distinction Sanders is trying to draw flirts with racism, possibly insinuating that white rural gun owners are law abiding, while gun crime is product of black urban pathologies.
Sanders’s argument “could could be misrepresented as an indictment of urban culture,” Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, a Democrat who represents a Brooklyn district, tells the The Trace.
“It’s not responsible to look at gun violence in ways that break us up by racial and regional identities,” he argues.
“It’s a big problem and we need to solve it together.”
[Photo: AP Photo/Mike Groll]