Bernie Sanders: Live By the Gun, Die By the Gun?

In an email, former Vermont Governor Jim Douglas provides further context to Senator Bernie Sanders’ ambivalent record on gun control that I discussed in my last post and which has prompted the ire of some liberals in the Democratic Party. In 1990 Sanders challenged incumbent Republican Representative Peter Smith for Vermont’s lone congressional seat. This was a rematch of the 1988 contest in which Smith defeated Sanders, who was running as an independent, by about 4%. In 1990, however, Smith came out in favor of a ban on assault weapons, despite signing a pledge two years earlier to oppose gun control legislation. The NRA – no friend of Bernie’s – nonetheless spent $18,000 on advertising to defeat Smith. (This is what the video I showed in my last post is referring to when it cites the NRA contribution to defeat Sanders’ opponent.) Douglas recalls seeing signs while marching with Smith during parades that year saying, “Smith and Wesson YES, Smith in Congress NO!” While the assault ban wasn’t the only factor leading to Smith’s defeat, it likely left a lasting impression on Sanders who still remains somewhat defensive on this issue. Here is Bernie in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, defending his position on gun control by making specific references to his constituents’ views on gun ownership while explaining his vote not to hold gun manufacturers liable for gun-related deaths.

As I noted in my previous post, Sanders’ ambivalence is not sitting well with many liberals.  And while it certainly does not represent a shift in presidential politics (contrary to this Washington Post article), Hillary Clinton has been sure to include a reference to strengthening gun control laws in her stump speech, albeit without mentioning Bernie by name. Still, as I suggested in this US News post, Bernie has much bigger hurdles to clear than liberal opposition to his ambivalent stance regarding guns. This just-released WashingtonPost/ABC national survey of adults reaffirms what I wrote previously: Bernie’s support is lagging compared to Clinton’s among non-white Democrats, those without college degrees, and moderate and conservative members of his party. In past nominating contests these groups constituted about a third of the Democratic electorate. To be sure, a significant number of respondents – 45% – still have no opinion of Sanders, so there’s room for him to change those numbers in the days ahead, whereas opinions of Clinton are at this point unlikely to vary much. Nonetheless, much as it pains Sanders’ supporters to hear (which is why some of them have critiqued my previous posts on this topic!) Bernie is facing very long odds in his bid to secure the Democratic nomination.

I briefly discussed some of these issues in an interview with our local CBS television affiliate WCAX, which aired last night. In it I talked about some of the similarities and differences between the Dean and Sanders’ presidential campaigns.  One point I made, which didn’t make it into the clip, is that whereas Dean chose to rebrand himself as a liberal in 2004 – he actually had a relatively moderate record as Governor of Vermont – Sanders will have no such makeover problem since he’s campaigning on issues, such as reducing income inequality, that he’s advocated throughout his political career.  But authenticity will carry you only so far – Sanders needs to put together the campaign infrastructure to translate polling support into votes, particularly in the early campaign labor-intensive states of Iowa and New Hampshire.  CBS reporter Alex Apple, who did the interview with me, also talked with a former Dean staffer who recalled that the Dean campaign knocked on a lot doors in Iowa in 2004, but despite earlier polls indicating he was leading in the state, they had trouble turning out supporters on caucus day.  At this point I can’t tell what kind of ground game Bernie is putting into place in Iowa, but if I recall correctly one of the problems the Dean campaign struggled with is that Iowans were not all that impressed with the swarm of college students and other “Deaniacs” who came tromping through the cornfields to solicit their vote.

(I want to give special thanks to Alex and cameraman Tyson Foster who were kind enough to interview me on my back deck “office”. I can tell you that you won’t find any other political analyst handicapping the presidential contest on television while wearing shorts! It’s hard work being a political scientist, but someone has to do it.)


  1. Like most Vermont political scientists, I’ve been approached by media on the subject of Bernie Sanders and guns, so I did a bit of research on the pivotal moment in everyone’s story about this issue: the 1990 congressional race, in which Sanders faced off against incumbent Representative Peter Smith. Smith appears to have been an early victim of what we’ve seen more of lately: a relatively liberal Vermont Republican campaigning for national office saddled with the baggage of being identified with the Republican Party’s national platform. The liberal group Americans for Democratic Action gave Smith a 65 rating in 1989, when other Republicans received an average rating of 15, making him, as the ADA told the Burlington Free Press, “a very very liberal Republican.” But Smith was an early prominent supporter of the controversial 1990 George H.W. Bush administration budget and tax deal, which Sanders opposed and slammed Smith for mercilessly. Sensing Smith was in trouble, President Bush flew out to Vermont to campaign for Smith, only to have Smith publicly distance himself from the president’s positions while the president was sitting right there – an affront that made national news. The issue of gun control did play a role in the campaign, but this was as much due to Smith as due to the NRA’s (relatively modest) spending: Smith himself touted the NRA’s opposition to him in his campaign ads (no doubt hoping it would demonstrate his independence and win the votes of some Vermont liberals). But because most of the clashes between candidates were over the budget deal – and over the buildup of military forces in Saudi Arabia after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait (remember that?) gun control doesn’t seem to have been the major issue in the race.

  2. Thanks Bert – the notion that gun control was not the major issue in the 1990 congressional campaign between Smith and Sanders is consistent with Governor Douglas’ recollection as well, although one can see why Sanders might be subsequently gun shy about getting too far ahead of constituents on this issue. It’s interesting (and perhaps telling) that both Sanders on the Left and conservative Republicans attacked the Bush budget deal as a political sellout. With hindsight, it was an early indication of the dangers of political compromise in an increasingly polarized national political climate.

  3. Also, some might respond that even if gun control wasn’t the focus of the campaign, in a close race even a minor issue can swing the election. There are two problems with this argument. First, Bernie Sanders’ stated position during the campaign was the same as the position that got Smith in trouble with the NRA: he was for an assault weapons ban. Second, this race was not close: Bernie won it by more than 16 percentage points. Hence, other issues probably made the difference in this case.

    On the issue of guns generally, Sanders has been more moderate than other Democrats, but I agree that this is due to his constituency. He opposed the Brady Bill in the 1990s, yes. But so did Pat Leahy!

  4. In the video I posted of the Tapper interview, I think Bernie makes it pretty clear that his position on guns is largely driven by the preferences of Vermont gun owners who, as Brianna Morse’s study makes clear, are a substantial and not entirely conservative voting bloc.

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