Senators Who Voted Against Manchin/Toomey Take A Hit In the Polls, But Does It Matter?

Several Senators who voted against the Manchin/Toomey background checks bill have suffered in the polls, but it's unclear if that matters in the long run.

Gun Flag

Polls taken in the immediate aftermath of the Senate’s rejection of the Manchin/Toomey background checks bill are showing something of a backlash against Senators who voted against the Manchin/Toomey background checks bill:

Anyone who doubted that senators could suffer political fallout for their opposition to expanding background checks on gun buyers may want to talk to Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ).

The Arizona Republican who took office in January was one of five senators whose popularity at home has declined in the wake of their votes against the gun bill, according to a survey released Monday from Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling. The measure, which was co-authored by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Pat Toomey (R-PA), fizzled in the Senate earlier this month despite polls showing staggering public support for strengthening background checks.

The backlash appears to be the harshest for Flake, whose standing in Arizona cratered following his “no” vote on background checks. With an approval rating of 32 percent, Flake is already among the least popular senators in the country, according to PPP. Fifty-one percent of Arizona voters said they disapprove of Flake, while a majority of 52 percent said that his opposition to the gun legislation makes them less likely to vote for him in the future. Moreover, a plurality of 45 percent of Arizona voters said they trust Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who was one of only four Republicans to support the measure, more than Flake on guns.


It’s not much better for Alaska’s two senators, both of whom voted against the background checks legislation. There, the once-popular Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R) numbers have taken a huge dip. Forty-six percent of Alaska voters said they approve of Murkowski while 41 percent said they disapprove. That’s down from a 54 percent approval rating found in PPP’s February survey, when the pollster rated her as one of the most popular members of the Senate.

Her fellow Alaskan Sen. Mark Begich (D), who was one of four red state Democrats to vote against the background checks legislation, fared much the same. The poll showed the junior senator with an approval rating of 41 percent, while 37 percent said they disapproved of his job performance. In February, PPP showed Begich with a 49 percent approval rating.

Thirty-nine percent of Alaska voters said the vote made them less likely to support Begich, who is up for re-election next year. The same percentage said they are less likely to support Murkowski because of it. Meanwhile, about a third said the failed gun legislation will make no difference on future support of either candidate.


In Nevada, the backlash against Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) appears less severe. His approval rating dipped to 44 percent in Monday’s poll, down three points from PPP’s survey conducted right before last year’s election. Forty-one percent said they disapprove. Still, a plurality of 46 percent of Silver State voters said they are less likely to back Heller for re-election as a result of his “no” vote.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), whose national profile rose last year after he emerged as a possible running mate to GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, has seen an 18-point drop to his approval rating in the last six months, according to PPP. In October, 35 percent of Buckeye State voters said they approved of Portman while a quarter said they disapproved. Today, his approval rating is under water: 26 percent said they approve of his job performance in PPP’s latest, while 34 percent said they disapprove. Fortunately for Portman, a plurality of 39 percent of voters there said his vote against background checks will make no difference on whether or not they support his next re-election bid in 2016, although 36 percent said it is now less likely that they will back him.

There’s also polling evidence to show that New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte, a Republican who voted against the bill, has also suffered in the immediate aftermath of the bill’s defeat.

Some readers will no doubt point to these polls as evidence rebutting the argument I made earlier this month that gun control is a low priority issue among voters (seehere and here) and that voting against Manchin/Toomey would be unlikely to harm those Senators that voted against it. On that I will make two points, while also addressing what these poll numbers might or might not mean.

First of all, it’s important to note that these polls, like all polls, are merely snapshots in time. They reflect what people are feeling right now and, in the immediate light of a vote that took place less than two weeks ago. In that sense, it’s not surprising that the numbers would be where they are. The question we don’t know the answer to is whether these numbers will stay there when we’re six months or a year away from the vote, and what impact that might have on an election at some point in the future. In the case of each of these Senators, it’s important to note that these people are still fairly far away from their re-election bids. Mark Begich doesn’t face the voters until next year, for example, and his fellow Alaskan Lisa Murkowski doesn’t get to that point until 2016. Rob Portman and Kelly Ayotte also have until 2016 before they will be facing voters. And, finally, Jeff Flake and Dean Heller aren’t up for re-election until 2018, which is so far away at this point that one wonders what the value of polling actually is at this point.

The second thing to remember about the voter intensity issue that I’ve noted in previous posts, is that it’s always possible that this time things will be different and gun control will be a more important issue for voters than it has been in the past. Historically, though, the evidence suggests that this isn’t the case and that, when it comes time to make decisions around an election, voters are likely to place far more importance on issues like the economy than they are on gun control, at least at the Federal level. If that changes, than the  assumptions that many political analysts are using when discussion these issues will have to be changed. However, we don’t know yet if that’s going to happen and these polls are just one data point at the moments. Check back in a year to six months and we’ll see where we are.

FILED UNDER: 2014 Election, 2016 Election, Congress, Guns and Gun Control, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. john personna says:

    You seem to say that your “priors” are impervious to new data.

    That’s very common, but not really the pinnacle of a rational life.

    And let’s be clear, if your previous position (prediction) had been truly accurate, there would have been no measurable impact for these Senators. Your argument was that low commitment to the background checks meant that voters would not judge their representatives harshly.

    You are already wrong.

  2. PogueMahone says:

    You’re right that voters have a short memory.

    However, if there is another mass shooting (especially one that involves legal firearms) closer to their election date, this vote will haunt these pols more than if they had voted for the bill if there isn’t another mass shooting.

    And what are the odds that there will be another mass shooting? Slim to none? Or better than they’ve ever been?

    They made a mistake with their vote. Let’s hope that there isn’t another reminder like Sandy Hook.

    So the question isn’t “does it matter” but “will it matter.”


  3. Xerxes says:

    The problem with the PPP Polls is that there are other issues that explain the downfall in approval ratings for Portman and Flake. What major stance did Portman take over a month ago that might explain why the Republican numbers for Portman have tanked? I agree it is sad that such a social issue could cause that major downfall. But that factor is nonexistent in the PPP poll’s explanation.

    As for Jeff Flake, the Republican numbers are low too. Why? Maybe the immigration reform bill is not popular in Arizona?

  4. john personna says:


    You’re right that voters have a short memory.

    Note that Doug isn’t JUST saying that voters have a short memory. He is making a claim that “in the future they will think as I do.”

    That is an appeal to missing data. It is more than data that isn’t collected and referenced, it is pure fancy. It hasn’t happened yet.

    “I am right because in the future things will be different.”

  5. pylon says:

    @PogueMahone: It’s likely not an “if”. More likely a “when”.

  6. john personna says:


    Shouldn’t Occam’s Razor come into this? Congress failed to pass an idea supported by over 90 percent of the people (at the time).

    Of course those people will feel some immediate disgust, and I really don’t think it can be waved away, with the simple claim that they’ll forget all about it.

    (Political ads are great at reminding people, anyway.)

  7. Caj says:

    They better believe it matters. The majority of the country were for backgrounds checks and some like myself wanted more. Putting the NRA before all those precious children & all the others killed by senseless gun violence will come back to haunt them. Shame on them. Shame on them all!

  8. stonetools says:

    This has been a tough start to the week for Doug. Wrong about Krugman, wrong about the effect of background checks. Lot of crow to eat.

    The big thing is that there are more effective gun safety organizations out there now that will put money and resources into reminding voters that these Senators bowed down to the NRA and went against the public will.
    And as Pogue Mahone points out, inevitably there will be another mass shooting to keep the issue fresh in the voter’s minds. These Senators have made a bargain with the merchants of death, now they will suffer for it.

  9. legion says:

    Doug, I’d just like to point out a trend here:

    A No Vote On Manchin/Toomey Is Unlikely To Hurt Any Senator – April 18
    Support For Gun Control Slips In New Poll – April 23
    Public Not Very Outraged By Defeat Of Background Checks Bill – April 24
    Sen. Toomey’s Poll Numbers Rise In Wake Of Background Checks Effort – April 26

    You kinda sound like someone in denial over the fact that Americans really do want gun control and really will vote based on that concept…

  10. john personna says:


    Thanks, that’s a good reference for what I say up top, about Doug defending his “priors.”

    He said “A No Vote On Manchin/Toomey Is Unlikely To Hurt Any Senator” and now when it does, in fact, as documented, he has to say … well it doesn’t matter.

    He is saying we don’t have to believe the data.

  11. LC says:

    @legion: just +1000 on this comment

  12. stonetools says:

    @john personna:

    He is saying we don’t have to believe the data.

    Are you going to believe me, or the lying data? Kudos to legion for putting links to Doug’s post titles up there. Says it all, really, better than any discussion.

  13. gVOR08 says:

    In support of the Southern Strategy, Pat Buchanan is quoted as having told Nixon they would split the country and they’d come away with the bigger half. He was right, and we still see it in the urban/rural split in the electorate. But the Dem’s half has evolved into the bigger half. It looks like Dems are now willing to take a stand on gun safety, knowing that win or lose, it marginalizes the Republican’s Confederate and cowboy coalition.
    It may well be that Doug ends up right, that this doesn’t hurt individual senators. But it may move more leaners into the Dem camp for the presidential vote. But then Doug’s right after all. It makes no difference. Hillary was going to win big anyway.

  14. john personna says:


    Leaving aside that “hurt” is proven, measured …

    The other thing is that more than one of these Senators have national ambitions. Rubio, for instance, would like to be President, but he just angered voters in his own, important, swing, state. 94% of FL voters wanted background checks.

  15. janosfia says:

    Given the source of this poll, I don’t really put much credibility to the results. Jeff Flake is more popular than ever in the one and only place it matters: Arizona.

  16. Gold Star for Robot Boy says:

    As an Arizonan, I can tell you with authority you’re full of sh1t.

  17. Gold Star for Robot Boy says:

    Jeff Flake acknowledges his popularity has tanked:

    Nothing like waking up to a poll saying you’re the nation’s least popular senator. Given the public’s dim view of Congress in general, that probably puts me somewhere just below pond scum.

    Now, notwithstanding the polling firm’s leftist bent, I would assume that my poll numbers have indeed taken a southerly turn since my vote against the Manchin-Toomey background check proposal. It was a popular amendment, and I voted against it.

  18. legion says:

    @Gold Star for Robot Boy: That’s exactly what I was just coming back to post… even in Arizona, gun control is something people actually seem to want.