Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor’s recent defeat could be summed up as “an incumbent who lost touch with the district,” according to GOP pollster Neil Newhouse.
The House majority leader’s loss is still reverberating in Washington, which considered his victory in the June 10 primary a foregone conclusion. In fact, Cantor lost by 12 points to college professor David Brat. He subsequently announced he would step down from his party leadership position at the end of July.
“How do you not pick up what’s going on in that district? I don’t know,” Newhouse, a partner and co-founder of Public Opinion Strategies, said Monday at C&E’s Art of Political Campaigning conference in Washington.
Cantor spent some $5.5 million during the race, much of which went to contrast ads that named Brat. “It’s not a bad thing to define your opponent before he defines himself, but this seemed to be a case of overkill,” said Newhouse.
Craig Shirley, of the GOP public affairs firm Shirley & Banister, called it a “perfect storm.”
“It all came together to utter and fully backfire on Cantor,” he said.
Ahead of the primary, Cantor’s campaign released an internal survey conducted by Republican polling firm McLaughlin & Associates that showed him up by 34 points. Shirley called that survey “a glaring error,” but noted that pollsters throughout the modern history of campaigns have made public errors. In 1988, Shirley recalled, then-presidential candidate Bob Dole’s pollster, Richard Wirthlin, took to calling the senator “Mr. President.” Dole subsequently lost the GOP nomination to George H. W. Bush.
Still, Newhouse said John McLaughlin will have to lick his wounds. “It’s going to take some time to recover from that. You’ve got to tear apart what you did and figure out what went wrong,” Newhouse said.
Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said that what happened to McLaughlin “could happen to any pollster.”
“I think one of the hardest things anymore is turnout,” she said. “I think all of us are struggling with the turnout models.”
One takeaway from Cantor’s loss, the pollsters agreed, was that candidates can’t rely on survey research to gauge the mood in their districts. “I think you need multiple mechanisms of feedback,” said Lake.