When Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost on Tuesday night to conservative David Brat, it stunned not only observers, but his own campaign. You just knew blame would be assigned. After all, this wasn’t merely an embarrassment for Cantor, but for the press, who had been similarly asleep at the wheel.
The obvious culprit was McLaughlin & Associates, Cantor’s pollster who had him up 34 points. In my estimation, this criticism is warranted. But interestingly, a survey commissioned by The Daily Caller has also come under fire from the likes of Politico. And the least charitable criticism probably came from James Hohmann, a normally fair-minded reporter, who lumped the two polls together, writing that “both of these surveys were embarrassingly wrong.”
It’s important to put things in context. First, it should be noted that TheDC survey was dramatically closer than the internal polling released by Cantor.
“The Vox Populi poll was a canary in the coal mine,” Vox Populi Spokeswoman Lisa Boothe told me via email. “The irony is that we are being criticized for not getting the numbers right when we were the only ones who identified a problem in the first place.”
Second, it’s important to note that TheDC’s headline announcing the survey was this: ‘Shock Poll Shows Eric Cantor Struggling In Primary.’
This headline is especially noteworthy when you consider that few media outlets were framing this primary election as being anything but a pro-forma affair and a foregone conclusion.
Neil Munro, TheDC reporter who wrote about the survey, went so far as to declare that “Cantor’s modest lead is a warning for the GOP leadership, which is facing much criticism from its populist base, including from Tea Party members.”
The Vox Populi survey may have had imperfections, but it was clearly a lot more accurate than any other available measure of the race.
In comparison, Politico had referred to Brat as “a primary opponent [Cantor] is very likely to beat” and someone who “has little chance of upsetting Cantor.” After all, Cantor was the majority leader who would ”almost certainly become the next speaker of the House.”
Aside from reporting, it’s worth noting that on the opinion side, Daily Caller blogger (and Democrat) Mickey Kaus had long been a believer in Brat. “I CREDIT THE POWER OF MICKEY KAUS, who’s been pushing his opponent for weeks,” wrote Glenn Reynolds, the popular professor and blogger who runs Instapundit.
The bottom line is that it seems a bit outrageous that while TheDC was reporting that this was a real race — and that Cantor was losing with Independents (Virginia is a non-registration state, so these are folks who refused to call themselves Republicans) — outlets now criticizing TheDC were mostly caught napping.
There are other reasons why it’s unfair to compare Cantor’s internal polling to TheDC’s. For example, Cantor’s team dismissed TheDC’s survey. “We’re going to win by a much stronger margin … our internal polling shows that,” Ray Allen, Cantor’s campaign chief, told TheDC.
Additionally, outlets like Breitbart (one of the few who paid attention to the race) drew a major distinction between the two surveys, noticing that TheDC’s poll proved Brat was gaining momentum:
On Friday, the Daily Caller released a poll that showed House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-VA) lead over Tea Party-backed challenger Dave Brat in the Republican primary in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District has dropped to 13 points just days before the June 10 election. The poll, conducted by Vox Populi of 583 likely Republican primary voters in the district on June 2, showed that 52 percent support Cantor while 39 percent support Brat.
The results suggest a sharp drop in support for Cantor. A poll conducted by McLaughlin and Associates between May 27 and 28 that showed Cantor leading by a 62 percent to 28 percent margin.
When I asked Vox Populi pollster and partner Brent Seaborn for a postmortem, he sounded a similar theme:
Our survey should have served as a warning sign that something was amiss in Virginia’s Seventh Congressional district. The numbers showed a tightening trend and given Rep. Cantor’s landslide primary victories in years past, this was a troubling development. We had David Brat winning big with independents and Democrats, and also had Cantor winning with self-described Republicans by a much slimmer margin than his own polling. Because we were interested in seeing how close this race was among past Republican primary voters, we didn’t pick up on the momentum of new voters that Brat was able to mobilize.
There are, of course, always excuses for imperfect polls. Predicting the composition of a primary electorate is hard. You look to past Republican primary turnouts as a guide, but history isn’t always the best predictor of the future. Additionally, (in a state like Virginia) it’s always possible for Democrats to show up unexpectedly and play “operation chaos.” There’s also the possibility that the polling (which is a snapshot of a moment in time) was close to accurate, but David Brat made major gains in the final week of the campaign.
At the end of the day, almost everyone was wrong about this race — almost everyone was blindsided by the results.
But let’s not mock the one outlet who noticed that something was going on in Virginia.