Republicans lose votes following mass shootings

April 25, 2021

Republican candidates find it tougher going after a mass shooting. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Mass shootings in the U.S. polarize politicians and voters on gun control policies and can cause Republicans to lose votes in U.S. House, Senate and presidential elections in counties where the shootings occur, according to a new study.

Following a mass shooting, Republican vote share in presidential elections decreases by 1.7 percentage points in counties where the shooting occurs, meaning that in 2008, for example, presidential nominee John McCain lost approximately 33,000 votes due to mass shootings that happened during the campaign — more than the margin he lost by in the swing states of North Carolina and Indiana. 

The study, published March 30 in the Journal of the European Economic Association, comes in the wake of several mass shootings across the country in March and April, along with another study published last month showing that one in five Colorado high school students believes they have easy access to a handgun. 

"If the definition of mass shooting is four people dying, then there is at least one mass shooting every two weeks [in the U.S.]," Hasin Yousaf, the author of the paper and a lecturer at the University of New South Wales, told The Academic Times. "It's very systematic, and mass shootings happen pretty often."

In the House of Representatives, mass shootings are correlated with a 2.2 to 4.1 percentage-point decrease in vote share for Republicans; in the Senate, mass shootings correlate with a 1.6 to 3.4 percentage-point decrease in Republican vote share; and in gubernatorial elections, mass shootings correlate with a 1.1 to 4.8 percentage-point decrease in Republican vote share. 

Yousaf started investigating this topic in 2016, following the December 2015 shooting in San Bernardino, California, and he hypothesized that the tragedy of a mass shooting would unite voters and politicians over the need for stronger gun control; the research found, however, that this was not the case.

The primary source of data in the study came from the FBI's 2016 Supplementary Homicide Reports, in addition to a list of failed mass shootings from the FBI's list of active shooters incidents FBI's 2001-2016 Active Shooter Incidents reports. Yousaf focused on public mass shootings in which four or more people died, the primary weapon used was a gun, and the probable motive of the offender was unknown. 

To study the effects of mass shootings on voting, Yousaf compiled electoral data for presidential, gubernatorial and U.S. senatorial elections from the U.S. Election Atlas website, obtaining the total number of votes cast and the vote shares for Republican and Democratic candidates in each county from 2000 to 2016. To understand the underlying mechanisms that explain these electoral outcomes, Yousaf used the American National Election Studies and the Cooperative Congressional Election Study; to study politicians' responses to mass shootings, Yousaf gathered roll-call voting data on gun-specific legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives. 

In the study, Yousaf posits that the increased salience of gun policy, especially in the wake of a mass shooting, may be a mechanism through which a change occurs in electoral outcomes. In other words, more attention to gun policy, especially after a mass shooting, may be a reason Republicans lose vote shares, since the electorate is already skewed in favor of Democrats on gun control policies. 

Yousaf pointed to a 2012 PEW Research Center study that found 57% of voters supported gun control, while 41% supported gun rights. Moreover, according to a 2016 American National Election Studies survey, 55% of voters believe that the Democratic Party is better at handling gun policy.

Yousaf's study also found a general trend of divergence among Democratic and Republican voters and politicians in regard to gun policies following a mass shooting; in the wake of mass shootings, Democrats advocate for stronger gun control, calling for "fewer guns on the street after mass shootings," Yousaf said, while Republicans "want weaker gun control, more guns on the street and more 'good people with guns.'"

In counties where mass shootings occur, Democratic voters are 3.9 percentage points more likely to demand stricter gun control, and Republican voters are 5.6 percentage points less likely to demand stricter gun control after those shootings. The overall percentage of Republican voters who demand stricter gun control measures in the wake of a mass shooting is 22%, compared with 77% of Democratic voters, according to the study. 

Using U.S. House of Representatives voting data from 2001 to 2012, Yousaf also discovered that Republican politicians became more conservative after a mass shooting, voting for looser gun control in districts where mass shootings occurred compared with other districts that did not have a mass shooting. In contrast, there was no statistically significant change among Democratic politicians in districts with mass shootings. 

Observing a widening gap in politicians' preference of gun policy following mass shootings, the estimates in the study suggest that mass shootings explain 19% of the increase in the polarization between Republican and Democratic politicians on these issues, according to Yousaf; the presence of the National Rifle Association in a district also exacerbates this political divide between Republicans and Democrats. 

One limitation of the study, Yousaf said, is that it is not able to determine whether voters influence politicians or whether politicians influence voters when it comes to gun control policies. He noted this is a topic for further academic exploration.

Yousaf told The Academic Times that gun policy may be so politically polarizing because the occurrence of mass shootings reinforces the beliefs of both Republican and Democratic voters.

"One type of voters, let's say, Republicans, are more likely to believe that the state of the world is one where gun control does not have any effect on mass shootings, while Democrats are more likely to believe that mass shootings can be stopped by stronger gun control," he said. "So you have these two different states of the world but, a priori [based on theoretical deduction rather than empirical observation], we don't know which state of the world we are in."

Thus, though these two groups of voters observe the same event in a mass shooting, they diverge based on what their prior beliefs were, Yousaf said.

"They tend to become stronger on their prior belief," he said. "So that's what explains why Republicans move in one direction and Democrats in the other. Republicans, after looking at the mass shootings, they say: 'Look, I told you that mass shootings cannot be prevented by gun control,' while Democrats, on the other hand, say, 'We could have prevented mass shootings if we had stronger gun control.' The theory behind this is that there is some uncertainty on what the link is between mass shootings and gun control."

The study "Sticking to one's guns: Mass shootings and the political economy of gun control in the U.S.," published March 30 in the Journal of the European Economic Association, was authored by Hasin Yousaf, University of New South Wales.

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