Bernie Sanders's gun-control record gives Hillary Clinton an opening

Guns are important because many voters have no opinion of Sanders, whereas opinions of Clinton aren't likely to vary much at this point. Clinton includes gun-control laws in her stump speech, albeit without mentioning Sanders by name.

Molly Riley/AP
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont, speaks at the Alliance for Retired Americans National Legislative Conference in Washington, on July 9, 2015.

In an e-mail, former Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas provides further context to Sen. Bernie Sanders’s ambivalent record on gun control that I discussed in my last post and which has prompted the ire of some liberals in the Democratic Party. In 1990, Sanders challenged incumbent Republican Rep. Peter Smith for Vermont’s lone congressional seat. This was a rematch of the 1988 contest in which Smith defeated Sanders, who was running as an independent, by about 4 percent. In 1990, however, Smith came out in favor of a ban on assault weapons, despite signing a pledge two years earlier to oppose gun control legislation. The NRA – no friend of Bernie’s – nonetheless spent $18,000 on advertising to defeat Smith. (This is what the video I showed in my last post is referring to when it cites the NRA contribution to defeat Sanders’s opponent.) Douglas recalls seeing signs while marching with Smith during parades that year saying, “Smith and Wesson YES, Smith in Congress NO!” While the assault ban wasn’t the only factor leading to Smith’s defeat, it likely left a lasting impression on Sanders, who still remains somewhat defensive on this issue. Here is Bernie in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, defending his position on gun control by making specific references to his constituents’ views on gun ownership while explaining his vote not to hold gun manufacturers liable for gun-related deaths.

 As I noted in my previous post, Sanders’ ambivalence is not sitting well with many liberals.  And while it certainly does not represent a shift in presidential politics (contrary to this Washington Post article), Hillary Clinton has been sure to include a reference to strengthening gun control laws in her stump speech, albeit without mentioning Bernie by name. Still, as I suggested in this US News post, Bernie has much bigger hurdles to clear than liberal opposition to his ambivalent stance regarding guns. This just-released WashingtonPost/ABC national survey of adults reaffirms what I wrote previously: Bernie’s support is lagging compared to Clinton’s among nonwhite Democrats, those without college degrees, and moderate and conservative members of his party. In past nominating contests, these groups constituted about a third of the Democratic electorate. To be sure, a significant number of respondents – 45% – still have no opinion of Sanders, so there’s room for him to change those numbers in the days ahead, whereas opinions of Clinton are at this point unlikely to vary much. Nonetheless, much as it pains Sanders’s supporters to hear (which is why some of them have critiqued my previous posts on this topic!) Bernie is facing very long odds in his bid to secure the Democratic nomination.

I briefly discussed some of these issues in an interview with our local CBS television affiliate WCAX, which aired last night. In it I talked about some of the similarities and differences between the Dean and Sanders presidential campaigns.  One point I made, which didn’t make it into the clip, is that whereas Dean chose to rebrand himself as a liberal in 2004 – he actually had a relatively moderate record as governor of Vermont – Sanders will have no such makeover problem, since he’s campaigning on issues, such as reducing income inequality, that he’s advocated throughout his political career. But authenticity will carry you only so far – Sanders needs to put together the campaign infrastructure to translate polling support into votes, particularly in the early campaign labor-intensive states of Iowa and New Hampshire. CBS reporter Alex Apple, who did the interview with me, also talked with a former Dean staffer who recalled that the Dean campaign knocked on a lot of doors in Iowa in 2004, but despite earlier polls indicating he was leading in the state, they had trouble turning out supporters on caucus day. At this point I can’t tell what kind of ground game Bernie is putting into place in Iowa, but if I recall correctly one of the problems the Dean campaign struggled with is that Iowans were not all that impressed with the swarm of college students and other “Deaniacs” who came tromping through the cornfields to solicit their vote.

(I want to give special thanks to Alex and cameraman Tyson Foster who were kind enough to interview me on my back deck “office." I can tell you that you won’t find any other political analyst handicapping the presidential contest on television while wearing shorts! It’s hard work being a political scientist, but someone has to do it.)

Matthew Dickinson publishes his Presidential Power blog at http://sites.middlebury.edu/presidentialpower/.

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