Five Wrong Lessons From the Vox’s “11 Political Lessons From Eric Cantor’s Loss”

Political punditry – the art of expressing instant commentary on political events in an authoritative manner – has never been for the faint of heart. But the task has grown both more competitive and more public with the growth of the interverse and the proliferation of political blogs and online media. These developments have increased pundits’ access to political events and related information, which in turn makes it easier to produce informed punditry. That is all for the good. But these changes have also ratcheted up the pressure for pundits to present their punditry quickly, in interesting and easily accessible form, in order to attract and keep an audience. This sometimes comes at the cost of accuracy. That, in turn, has made it easier for smug political scientists like me, safely ensconced on a deck nestled in the hills of Vermont and protected by rabid woodchucks to, with scotch in hand, blast the latest punditry for its misreading of data/unclear logic/ faulty methodology/all-of-the-above.

Which I am about to do again.

Those of you in the twitterverse will remember that I sent out several tweets on Tuesday night, during the Cantor election implosion, criticizing what I thought were some incorrect conclusions Ezra Klein was drawing in his “11 political lessons from Eric Cantor’s loss”. Now lest anyone accuse me of hating on Ezra and The Vox, rest assured that I think he and his minions do wonderful work at their site, and under difficult circumstances, given that their stated mission is to “explain everything you need to know, in two minutes.” Moreover, he is among the best of the punditocracy at drawing on political science research as much as his available time warrants. Finally, Klein notes at the outset of this particular column that his are “provisional” thoughts. So we should cut him some slack at the outset.

With those caveats, let me direct my ire at five of Ezra’s 11 lessons, roughly in the order in which they were presented.

Lesson two is that “Republicans” are not the same as “Republican primary voters.” Klein writes, “It’s possible and even likely that the vast majority of Republicans in Virginia’s 7th District liked Cantor just fine.” Klein’s point, which he develops in a later column, is that Cantor ran a horrible campaign and failed to turn out these sympathetic Republican voters, thus sealing his loss. The problem with this claim is that, according to this PPP poll, Cantor was in fact deeply unpopular among most Republicans in the district. Keeping in mind that Tuesday’s Republican primary turnout was up by some 20,000 over when Cantor won his primary challenge two years earlier, it is not clear that his loss was because he ran a poor campaign and that the “right” voters did not come out. Clearly he had deeper problems rooted in the perception that he was out of touch with his district that a clever campaign was not going to overcome.

2:04 UPDATE.  This “day after” poll of Republican voters in Cantor’s district is completely consistent with what I wrote above, and with my initial post on this issue taking Chuck Todd, Chris Cilliza and others to task for focusing on immigration as the key to Cantor’s defeat. The key finding is that “Immigration was not a major factor in Rep. Cantor’s defeat. Among those who voted for David Brat, 22% cite immigration as the main reason for their vote, while 77% cite other factors. Chief among those other factors cited by Brat voters were the idea that Cantor ‘was too focused on national politics instead of local needs,’ and that Cantor had ‘lost touch with voters.’”

Lesson three is that “Immigration reform is dead and Hillary Clinton’s presidential hopes are so, so alive.” Lesson six makes a similar point: that the likelihood of a Democrat winning the presidency in 2016 went up because of Cantor’s defeat. I hope I’ve persuaded you in my previous post that, based in part on the same PPP poll, that support for immigration reform did not cause Cantor’s defeat, and that it is not clear how Republicans will interpret his loss, given that other candidates who support immigration reform, like Senator Lindsay Graham, easily fought off primary challenges. (Moreover, for what it is worth, New York Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer is claiming that Cantor’s ouster has made immigration reform more likely, not less.)

Similarly, the idea that an upset in one Republican House primary with 12% turnout has somehow improved Democrats presidential hopes in 2016 seems to me to be a very big reach. The logic seems to be that the more moderate Republican candidates like Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush (assuming they run) will find it much harder in the aftermath of Cantor’s loss to win their party’s nomination unless they move Right by, for example, opposing immigration reform, which in turn will then make them less likely to win the general election. Or something like that. That presumes, however, that Republican candidates, their consultants, party activists and the media all draw the lesson from Cantor’s defeat that Klein and other media pundits want us to draw, which is that it was all due to immigration, and their response come 2016 will be conditioned on that one belief. But it is not clear to me that Cantor’s loss changed many priors – those who oppose immigration reform will swear he lost because he was on the fence on this issue. Others who support reform will say immigration didn’t cause Cantor’s loss. In short, I don’t see a huge shift in beliefs based on this one electoral result, once the media chatter dies down and pundits move on to other controversies. Party activists with strong partisan priors, like those who participate in primaries, tend to interpret events through their existing predispositions rather than change attitudes to conform to those events.

Klein’s lesson ten is that Cantor’s defeat by a Tea Party-backed candidate indicates that so-called “reform conservatism doesn’t have much of a constituency, even among Republican primary voters.” There is a prevailing tendency among pundits to describe the Tea Party as either the dominant force in Republican Party politics or a fringe element of looney ‘toons with dwindling influence. As I’ve written extensively before, they are neither. While the number of voters who are active in Tea Party politics is quite small, many of the movement’s core beliefs, particularly those dealing with the budget politics and the deficit, resonate with fully a quarter or more of American voters. So the Tea Party will wield some influence in the Republican nominating process, but not enough to dictate the party’s results. It probably bears repeating that in both 2008 and 2012 the Republicans chose the more moderate candidate who in both cases overcame strong challenges from the party’s Right.

The final one of Klein’s lessons I want to discuss is that Cantor’s defeat, alongside the losses suffered by other prominent Republicans in recent years like Dick Lugar and Mike Castle, “mean no Republican is safe. And that means that as rare as successful Tea Party challenges are, every elected Republican needs to guard against them.” Well, yes – but rest assured that most Republicans did not need Cantor’s loss to teach them this lesson.

Years ago, while a junior faculty member at The World’s Greatest University, a senior colleague informed me that a Ph.D. candidate had just failed his oral defense – a shocking outcome both because this student was extremely smart and because graduate students almost never failed their orals. I asked my senior colleague what the student had said when informed that he had failed. The senior colleague paused, smiled, and then replied, “He said, “I thought no one ever failed these!’ This, of course, is exactly the point.”

And that’s the real lesson here. House reelection rates are high – 95% or more – not because the incumbents don’t worry about losing. They are high because all most of them do is worry about losing. In this respect, Cantor’s loss doesn’t tell them anything new, and is not likely to change behavior that is already premised on the belief that House incumbents are, as Tom Mann puts it, “unsafe at any margin”.

Ok. Cue the woodchuck.





  1. I think no incumbents are “safe” this time around; I do not limit that to Republicans.

    The people are sick of the B.S. in Washington, and Iraq is proving a HUGE liability now to Democrats. One more Obama failure come to pass.

  2. Professor Dickinson,

    The most shocking thing about this week, I dare say, seems to be your newfound preference for rabid woodchuck defense of your house. I remember once, on a snowy morning of PSCI 104 in the dark, cavernous room of Twilight Hall, your warning of rifle fire to all possible trespassers on your property. Have you given up the rifle in favor of the woodchucks? What’s next? Watching nobody score kicking a ball around in Brazil over watching the Red Sox?

  3. Shelly – While it is true that polls indicate a high level of dissatisfaction with Congress, I’ll guarantee you that come November fully 90% of incumbent House members who run will win.

  4. Will,

    Rest assured that I have my hands full watching defensively-challenged Red Sox kicking balls around. And, while I still have my trusty rifle, the woodchuck is providing an additional layer of protection from angry pundits, so as long as s/he stays clear of my green beans, I say live-and-let live.

  5. Hmmm that means you think 10% could be vulnerable. Let’s do the math: 435 (less Cantor = 434 Plus @ 1/3 of the Senate (33) less some incumbents not running (let’s say 3) would be @ 464 x 10% = 46.

    You think 46 are vulnerable? Wow, no one wants to be in the 46, so they better all start kicking butt NOW.

  6. Shelly – Senate reelection rates are typically lower – my estimate only focuses on the House. Also, not all current incumbents are running again. So I wouldn’t hold to your exact number, but the underlying theme is true: House members win reelection at such high rates because they are all scared of losing!

  7. Ah I see. Good to know Ripton is well fortified against pundit armies. No doubt CNN’s high tech pundits wouldn’t stand a chance against Green Mountain woodchucks.

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