In a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll last summer, a majority of even the most ardent Democrats said they would prefer that their party's members try to cooperate with Republicans, even if it meant compromising on key issues. Among Republicans, however, most preferred that their partisans stick to their positions rather than try to cooperate across party lines.
Sometimes a well-designed political campaign can convert minority viewpoints to majority positions. A 2012 Minnesota effort to require voters to produce photo identifications appeared overwhelmingly popular at first. But state voters ultimately rejected it.
"A year and a half ago, when this polled at 80 percent, you know it was organizations with networks in communities who jumped in and who started talking to people about the facts," activist Dan McGrath told local reporters.
The U.S. gun lobby takes a different approach, spending enormous resources to keep lawmakers in its corner even when public sentiment is elsewhere.
"The gun lobby is the most powerful special interest in America," said Mike Barnes, a former Democratic congressman from Maryland and former head of the Brady Center. Many Republican lawmakers, he said, "live in total fear that the gun lobby might consider them less than perfect."
The NRA is the best-known of the gun-rights groups, but others make waves, too. The National Association for Gun Rights has aired ads claiming that prominent Republicans — including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va. — helped Obama create a national gun registry, an assertion that independent groups call false.
GOP consultant Steve Lombardo said Republicans risk becoming seriously out of step with mainstream opinion.
"The GOP leadership continues to be shackled to old positions that are no longer important to a majority of voters," Lombardo said. "Ninety percent of these Republicans who oppose gun restrictions that are widely supported by most voters come from strongly conservative districts."
"Not enough Republicans come from swing districts," Lombardo said.
Lehane said there have been other times when the nation's political system got out of step with majority opinion. In the 1950s and '60s, he said, support for civil rights legislation was thwarted by an odd-bedfellows Democratic Party heavily influenced by Southern conservatives, some of them segregationists.
The shock of President John F. Kennedy's assassination, plus President Lyndon Johnson's persuasive skills and, ultimately, a political realignment that gave Republicans control of the South, brought U.S. policy more in line with mainstream beliefs, Lehane said.
Now, he said, it may take "some type of significant external event," such as an economic collapse, coupled with effective leaders and a motivated public to put public policy more in sync with public opinion.
But with Republicans and Democrats responding mainly to their ideological bases, Lehane said, "instead of moving to the 50-yard line, both sides are sprinting to their end zones."
AP Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta and news researcher Monika Mathur contributed to this report.
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