WASHINGTON -- As the debate over gun control heats up on Capitol Hill, a new poll Tuesday revealed that more voters consider a political endorsement from the National Rifle Association to be a negative factor than a positive one.
The poll, by Public Policy Polling, found that 39 percent of respondents said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who was endorsed by the NRA. By contrast, only 26 percent said having the NRA's support would make them more likely to vote for someone. Another 32 percent said it wouldn't affect how they voted. Among independents -- a coveted voting bloc that often decides national elections -- 41 percent considered an NRA endorsement a negative, as opposed to 27 percent who said they viewed it as a positive.
"Politicians really don't have to be scared of the NRA," said Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling. "Voters consider its support to be a negative thing."
The poll sheds fresh doubt on the value of a political endorsement from the NRA, which has long been among the most powerful lobbying groups in Washington. The NRA contributes millions of dollars to political campaigns and voter participation drives, and it helps members decide whom to vote for by grading lawmakers, from A to F, on the degree to which their voting records favor gun owners. The majority of Republicans in Congress have A's or A-'s, while most Democrats have D's and F's.
But while the grades fall closely along party lines, it's the members in the B-to-C range, especially senators, whose votes will likely make the difference in passing or rejecting gun control proposals backed by President Barack Obama.
When reached for comment about the poll results, a spokesman for the NRA's political arm observed that "there are a lot of former elected officials who would disagree with this poll." The comment was a subtle reference to lawmakers who have lost reelection, in part because the NRA endorsed their opponent. The gun lobbying group's influence was especially visible in Republican primary races, such as the 2012 GOP Senate primary in Indiana, in which the NRA helped State Treasurer Richard Mourdock defeat longtime Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.). Mourdock lost the general election to Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly (Ind.).
Some current candidates for Congress have already distanced themselves from the NRA. Former Rep. Debbie Halvorson (D-Ill.) at one time enjoyed an "A" rating from the gun lobby, which labeled her "solidly pro-gun." But as Halvorson launched a campaign to win the open seat of retired Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D), she told supporters in an email, "I have not lobbied the NRA for an endorsement."
Halvorson added that she supports "President Obama and Vice President Biden's efforts in getting all sides to the table."
The poll, of 800 registered voters, also found 53 percent of respondents support stricter gun laws, while 39 percent oppose them. These figures are roughly identical to a similar poll (PDF) taken by PPP four weeks ago. The fact that the ratio of support for stronger gun laws hasn't decreased in the past month is significant: Support for tougher gun laws typically spikes following mass shootings like the one in Newtown, Conn., only to decrease again as other issues come to the fore and people's memories fade. Steady levels of majority support for gun control could indicate that Obama's efforts have more solid public backing -- and thereby a better chance of passing Congress -- than prior efforts.