Do campaign contributions affect the likelihood that a member of congress has publicly spoken out after the Sandy Hook School shooting? The answer appears to be yes, and by a lot. Our review found that a representative who received significant campaign support from the NRA was more likely to keep his or her mouth shut about the shooting -- speaking out at 2/3s the rate of an average member of congress. Similarly, a NRA-supported representative was only half as likely to enunciate a substantive policy position compared to an average member of congress. And in a 21st century twist, members of congress were more than three times as likely to use social media to share their statement with the public than their official website.
Representatives Who Received NRA Money Spoke Out Less Frequently
Of the top ten members (or candidates for) the House or Senate identified by the Center for Responsive Politics as receiving the greatest support from National Rifle Association in the 2012 election cycle, 50% commented on the Sandy Hook tragedy on their official web pages, Twitter, or Facebook, as compared to 78% of our sample of our randomly-chosen members of congress. In short, NRA-supported representatives were 64% less likely to speak out compared to the average member of congress. For more on the NRA's influence on Congress, see this article by Lee Drutman. Both representatives identified by CRP as receiving money from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence made public statements.
Few Representatives Articulated Substantive Policy Positions
The average member of congress was twice as likely to make a substantive policy statement on the shooting as a top NRA-supported representative, with 19% of our random sample releasing substantive statements compared to 10% of NRA-supported reps. A substantive policy statement is where a member of congress takes a policy position. (For example, a representative could say that it is appropriate or inappropriate to introduce new gun control laws.) It's noteworthy that only a small percentage of representatives have chosen to engage the public on the policy level on this issue.
Interestingly, the communications gap narrows when you look at non-substantive policy statements. 59% of our random sample made non-policy statements, versus 40% of top NRA-supported reps.
Representatives Preferred Social Media Over Their Official Webpages
The average member of congress was three times more likely to comment on Twitter (67%) than on their official webpage (22%), and twice as likely to comment on Facebook (44%). By comparison, top NRA-supported members were just as likely to comment on their official webpage (30%) as on Facebook (30%), and more likely to comment on Twitter (50%).
While NRA-supported representatives were generally more reluctant to comment publicly, they did make use of their official congressional webpages to respond to the shooting (30%) at a higher rate an average representative (22%).
Often times, multiple posts were made Facebook or Twitter by a particular official. Social media was occasionally used in conjunction with a posting on an official congressional webpage. Rarely, however, did a representative respond to the many comments received in response to a Facebook post or tweet.
In some contexts, elected officials are much more likely to use social media to communicate with constituents than their official webpages, although the communications are still in the form of an official statement. However, representatives are not availing themselves of the social nature of these media to have a conversation with constituents, and usually make anodyne statements that do not indicate a preferred policy response. Constituents have attempted to prompt a conversation on the Sandy Hook shooting with their representatives on social media, but have been ignored.
It is unclear why these members of congress used social media instead of publishing on their websites or a conjunction of the two. It could be because it reaches a different audience, is viewed as more ephemeral, is easier to employ, or any of a number of other reasons.
Also noteworthy is that NRA-supported representatives have been the most likely to follow the NRA's approach of waiting several days to respond to the events at Sandy Hook. These is no evidence to indicate whether this approach was adopted individually or as part of a collective strategy.
Using Center for Responsive Politics data, we identified the top ten recipients of NRA campaign support and all recipients of Brady Campaign support in the 2012 cycle. We also randomly identified twenty-seven representatives and senators by searching the congressional bioguide for the year 2012 and picking every tenth representative. We randomly chose these representatives and senators as a control group. For improved statistical accuracy, it's likely that we'd need to review a larger sample of representatives and senators. There are other proxies for NRA and Brady Campaign influence, such as endorsements and voters guides, which may be more reflective of intensity of support.
The foregoing analysis is a useful first approximation to examine a possible correlation between influence and congressional speech, although much more research and analysis is needed. A spreadsheet containing our research can be found here.
Considering the NRA's long reach into congress, it would be interesting to see to what changes in speech were correlated with intensity of support from the NRA. It would be interesting to examine the origin and spread of the generic expressions of sympathy for the victims.