Why the NRA controls politicians, but not companies

Rick Newman
Senior Columnist

The National Rifle Association is a potent political force. But it has far less sway with ordinary consumers, which is why companies such as Delta Air Lines and MetLife have ended business relationships with the NRA, and why Dick’s Sporting Goods has now banned the sale of assault rifles at its stores, with no apparent concern about NRA criticism.

For all the attention it gets, the NRA is neither a particularly large group, nor a bottomless source of campaign money for politicians, as some headlines suggests. The NRA has around 5 million members. That’s just 2% of the adult population in the United States. The American Automobile Association, by comparison, has 58 million members. AARP has about 38 million members.

The NRA also advocates policies that represent the views of a minority of Americans–in some cases, a very small minority. In general, the NRA fights to legalize or keep legal virtually every type of firearm, no matter how deadly or controversial. That’s out of step with mainstream opinion. In Gallup’s polling, 60% of Americans favor stricter gun laws, while just 5% want looser gun laws. In a recent Politico poll, 68% favored a ban on the type of assault rifle used to kill 17 students at a Florida high school on Feb. 14. The NRA staunchly opposes such a ban. Even some gun owners who are members of the NRA favor modestly stricter rules on things like background checks for gun buyers, which the NRA itself opposes.

The NRA has accused companies ending partnerships with the group of “cowardice.” But if you’re a CEO weighing such a decision, all you really care about is whether you’ll alienate a big block of your own customers. And the answer is, probably not. There just aren’t that many people who feel strongly about gun rights at any cost. You might even avoid the type of headaches and bad press that would come if activist groups were to encourage a boycott of your company–as FedEx now faces, for refusing to end discounts offered to NRA members. If you’re going to lose either way, better to lose on the side of majority opinion.

Threats against Delta

The NRA wants to be linked arm-in-arm with the Republican party, so that any slight against the NRA will be seen as an offense to conservatives everywhere. But that linkage is weakening. Nearly half of Republicans now support stricter gun laws, a portion that has surged from just 30% last fall. That portion might drift lower as the memory of the latest Florida shooting fades, but it could also rise further if (or when) there’s another incident like it.

Georgia Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, a Republican who’s running for governor, targeted Delta after it ended a discount program for NRA members. Cagle said he’d try to kill tax breaks Delta gets in its home state, because “corporations cannot attack conservatives.” That’s just what the NRA wants Republicans to think – that an attack on one is an attack on all. But it’s a safe bet Delta’s tax breaks in Georgia will remain intact. The airline employs 33,000 people there, and undoubtedly has strong relations with the majority of the state’s political establishment. Delta’s stance on the NRA is a trifle compared with the amount of business it does in the state and the politicians who would suffer if they gave a well-liked, home-grown company reason to pack up and leave.

As a political force, the NRA punches well above its weight, which is why it’s way more influential among politicians than it is among consumers. Part of that power comes from the money it throws around, which amounted to $54 million spent supporting pro-gun candidates in the 2016 election cycle.

Other groups give much more, but the NRA seems to get extraordinary results for the money it does spend. It excels at tracking which politicians support and oppose its positions, and at identifying favored candidates early in election cycles, when the ability to exert influence is sometimes greater. In 2016, the group’s main political arm spent 94% of its money supporting candidates who won—an enviable record, in any business.

Confidential tip line: rickjnewman@yahoo.com. Encrypted communication available.

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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman

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