NRA Convention Attendees Love Trump, But Will the NRA Be Able to Repeat 2016?

Attendees stand for the national anthem at the start of the 148th National Rifle Association (NRA) annual meeting in Indianapolis, In., April 26, 2019. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Indianapolis, Ind. –The vendors for red MAGA hats were doing brisk business outside of Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis this morning, as a healthy portion of the estimated 80,000 attendees prepared to hear President Trump and Vice President Pence address the attendees of the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting later today.

The attendees, by and large, adore President Trump and can’t wait to vote for him again. But the bigger question looming over this year’s convention is whether the NRA will have the resources to play the same role in 2020 that they did in the last presidential election.

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Salena Zito and Brad Todd’s study of the 2016 election in the Midwest, The Great Revolt, spends two chapters discussing the National Rifle Association’s efforts to reach and mobilize women voters. Todd, a political consultant, worked with the NRA on past campaigns.

The NRA had considerable resources; Zito and Todd write that it was “twice the size of any of its previous presidential efforts,” started earlier in the cycle than most other political groups, and targeted women almost exclusively. Their post-election survey found that the Rust Belt Trump voters who were most likely to agree with the statement that “every American has a fundamental right to self-defense and a right to choose the home defense firearm that is best for them” was  women under age forty-five.

When the NRA throws its maximum weight into a presidential election, it can have a consequential impact, particularly in those highly-contested swing states. Right now, Pennsylvania has 1.27 million active concealed carry permit holders, Ohio has 623,000, Michigan has 616,000, Wisconsin has 328,000, and Iowa has 273,000. And it’s not just the Rust Belt; Florida has almost 1.75 million permit holders.

But in the 2018 midterms, the NRA took a much smaller role as revenues dropped; after spending $25 million on 42 races in 2014, the organization spent $10 million on 24 races. For the first time, pro-gun-control groups outspent them in an election cycle. The Las Vegas and Parkland school shootings energized gun-control advocates, and most of the Democratic House challengers embraced gun control as a key part of their platform.

The NRA needs to be on more reassuring financial footing heading into the 2020 cycle. The recent allegations of mismanagement and wasteful spending at the group’s primary public-relations firm could hardly have come at a worse time.

Then again, the NRA has effectively the same argument for gun owners that it did in 2016: if the Democratic nominee is elected, he or she will appoint Supreme Court justices who are fundamentally hostile to the Second Amendment and private-gun ownership. Whatever other flaws Trump has, he has nominated the kinds of judges and justices that the NRA wants to see.

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