Both the nation’s gun lobby and labor unions flexed their political muscles in a major way during the 2000 election, although which had a greater impact on the outcome remains in dispute. A panel of experts discussed the role of special interests during a Kennedy School Forum on Thursday night, May 10.
“Two-thousand was an extraordinary election. It was the closest thing to a tie we’ve ever had in American [political] history,” said moderator Ron Brownstein, national political correspondent with the Los Angeles Times. “What was equally remarkable was that in this virtual splitting of the country down the middle, the most powerful lines were along the lines of culture rather than economics, values rather than interest.”
Panelist Anna Greenberg, assistant professor of public policy at the Kennedy School, told the audience that the “culture war” elevated the role played by certain special interest groups.
“What you really saw in this last election was the AFL, the NRA, and the NAACP step in and mobilize people to vote the way parties used to, and it had a real impact,” she said. “The NRA-AFL battle was symbolic of the competing tensions between cultural concerns and economic concerns among white, non-college voters, and particularly among white non-college educated men.”
Bill McInturff, co-founder and partner, Public Opinion Strategies, noted a significant shift in voter sentiment during the final weeks of the election cycle – caused to a great extent by the last-minute push by labor groups and the gun lobby.
“What the two national parties did was … to leave it to these two special interest groups to go run their own campaigns beneath the surface,” he said. “Watching that incredible surge over the last three weeks was really powerful to me as a pollster.” In the end, he says, 9-percent of voters reported being contacted by a labor union during the campaign, while 8-percent reported being contacted by a pro-gun group.
The National Rifle Association spent $45 million on the campaign, according to its executive vice-president Wayne LaPierre, and that investment apparently paid off.
“The key was the Gore camp overestimated the appeal of gun control and underestimated the power of gun owners energized by a political threat,” he told the audience. “You had a clear and present threat reawakened in the heartland of America … and that drove voters to the polls … and made a huge difference in numerous states and probably made the difference in Arkansas, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Missouri.”
Steve Rosenthal, political director for the AFL/CIO, noted that two-thirds of union members voted for Gore, apparently heeding the direction of union leaders.
“The fact that the union is now providing one-on-one contact – knocking on doors, talking to union members, using every form of communication that we can – we are beginning to create a dynamic where that trust and that bond is growing [between union leadership and members],” he said.
Greenberg believes the bonds between special interest groups and the people they represent will continue to grow, serving to further split the nation along certain cultural boundaries. “This unresolved tension, particularly among white, non-college educated voters, between economic populism and cultural conservatism was not resolved in this election and is going to get played out in many elections to come,” she said.