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NYT Leans Heavily on Questionable '90 Percent' of People Who Favor Background Checks

On the front page of Tuesday's New York Times, Michael Shear and Peter Baker pushed a questionable gun control statistic while analyzing President Obama's failure to convince the Senate to pass background checks for gun purchases  "In Gun Bill Defeat, a President Who Hesitates to Twist Arms."

The reporters focused on one betraying Democratic senator and questioned in a text box why he wasn't being punished by Obama: "Senator Mark Begich appears unlikely to be punished by the White House for refusing to support background checks."

Senator Mark Begich, Democrat of Alaska, asked President Obama’s administration for a little favor last month. Send your new interior secretary this spring to discuss a long-simmering dispute over construction of a road through a wildlife refuge, Mr. Begich asked in a letter. The administration said yes.

Four weeks later, Mr. Begich, who faces re-election next year, ignored Mr. Obama’s pleas on a landmark bill intended to reduce gun violence and instead voted against a measure to expand background checks. Mr. Obama denounced the defeat of gun control steps on Wednesday as “a shameful day.”

But Mr. Begich’s defiance and that of other Democrats who voted against Mr. Obama appear to have come with little cost. Sally Jewell, the interior secretary, is still planning a trip to Alaska -- to let Mr. Begich show his constituents that he is pushing the government to approve the road.

The trip will also reinforce for Mr. Begich and his colleagues a truth about Mr. Obama: After more than four years in the Oval Office, the president has rarely demonstrated an appetite for ruthless politics that instills fear in lawmakers. That raises a broader question: If he cannot translate the support of 90 percent of the public for background checks into a victory on Capitol Hill, what can he expect to accomplish legislatively for his remaining three and a half years in office?

But just how legitimate is the "90 percent" poll the Times and the rest of the media have been tossing around for weeks? The paper has certainly gotten an awful lot of rhetorical mileage out of it. But James Taranto at the Wall Street Journal gave it a little thought and found it pretty meaningless.

"'The 90%' who supposedly support gun background checks is an even more evanescent construct -- the result of a poll, which presumably questioned a few hundred randomly called people, few of whom likely had thought deeply about the subject. And while there are certainly Americans who define their identity in part by their aversion to guns, many others define it by their affinity for them. We'd guess that overall the latter outnumber the former, and we're fairly certain the latter tend to be more intense with respect to this aspect of their identity.

The senators who voted down the gun-control measures did so on the basis of a deeper understanding of the constituents they represent than can be conveyed by a single number from an opinion poll. They're professional politicians, and they managed to get elected, in most cases from states Barack Obama never managed to carry. If they misjudged popular opinion, they can be voted out of office. It's an example of representative democracy at its best.

The Times' resident poll analyst Nate Silver opined the figure was an overstatement of how well background checks actually would play politically.

My view...is that polls showing 90 percent support for background checks will tend to overstate how well the Democrats’ position might play out before the electorate in practice, though public opinion was on their side on this vote.

The Times went to its go-to guy for historical context, left-wing historian Robert Dallek, who praised Obama's "reasoned temperament" even while criticizing his political tactics.

Robert Dallek, a historian and biographer of President Lyndon B. Johnson, said Mr. Obama seems “inclined to believe that sweet reason is what you need to use with people in high office.” That contrasts with Johnson’s belief that “what you need to do is to back people up against a wall,” Mr. Dallek said.

“Obama has this more reasoned temperament,” he said. “It may well be that it’s not the prescription for making gains. It raises questions about his powers of persuasion.”