Tag Archives: Eric Cantor

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.




No, That’s Not Why Cantor Lost, and That’s Not What It Signifies

No, that’s probably not why Eric Cantor lost, and no, that’s not what we should conclude from his loss.

To all of you who were lurking in the twitterverse last night, I apologize if I seemed to take a bit too much pleasure in pushing back on the instant analysis issued by everyone from Chuck Todd to Chuck Wagon. But let me ask you: since no name-brand pundit that I know of saw Cantor’s loss coming (on this point, see Jaime Fuller’s wonderful “Holy Crap” summary!), why should you believe them when they then try to explain what it means? The answer? In the absence of actual data regarding who voted (more on that in a moment), you probably shouldn’t.  Of course, that’s not going to stop pundits from trying to glean the national implications of Cantor’s loss.

So, at the risk of piling on, let me explain in a bit more detail why you should view most of the Cantor post-mortems with a great deal of skepticism. Let me begin by addressing some of the more popular but empirically vacuous bits of punditry.

1. Cantor’s loss means immigration reform is dead.

This was the initial reaction from pundits like Todd, and it is being repeated today by the Washington Post’s Chris Cilliza and others. The logic seems to be that since Cantor expressed a willingness to discuss amnesty for the children of illegal immigrants as part of an overall immigration package – a position his opponent David Brat attacked – then Cantor’s loss shows that immigration reform is a non-starter.  There’s a couple of problems with this interpretation. First, it presumes that immigration reform wasn’t already dead, or at least on life support, even with Cantor in the House. Second, it’s not clear how much opposition to immigration reform in Cantor’s district had to do with Cantor’s loss. In fact, a Public Policy poll indicates that 72% of those surveyed in Cantor’s district strongly or somewhat support the elements of a bipartisan immigration reform bill. That support includes 70% of Republicans who responded to the survey, and 73% of independents.

2. Cantor’s loss is good news for Hillary Clinton/bad news for Marco Rubio/Jeb Bush/fill in the name of moderate Republican presidential candidate.

Ezra Klein, among many others, is pushing this line as one of his 11 lessons to draw from Cantor’s defeat. (Note: as I tweeted at length last night, my view is that at least 5 of Klein’s lessons are of dubious empirical validity.)  But it is extremely misleading to draw national implications from one House primary race. We might just as well conclude that Lindsey (I support immigration reform) Graham’s Senate primary win suggests moderate Republicans are poised to do well in 2016. The fact is that you shouldn’t draw any implications regarding the 2016 presidential race from an outcome based on about 12% turnout in a single House district.

3. Cantor’s loss shows money can’t buy elections.

It is true that Cantor vastly outraised and outspent Brat by some 5-to1. But about 39% of Cantor’s money came from PACs, which is not unusual for someone occupying a leadership position, and only 2% (about $95,000) from small contributors. In contrast, Brat received no PAC money, but drew 33% ($65,000) of his contributions from small donors. As my colleague Bert Johnson is fond of pointing out, small contributors tend to be activists with strong partisan preferences. In addition, David Levinthal, using financial disclosure forms, indicates that only 12% of Cantor’s money came from within his district. So, the effective disparity in campaign contributions may not be as great as the gross spending numbers suggest.

4. Cantor’s loss means all Republican establishment candidates, particular in leadership positions, are vulnerable to Tea Party challengers.

As Klein asserts, “These losses mean no Republican is safe.” Presumably the pundits are referring to people like Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, or Senator Lindsay (I support immigration reform) Graham, who both easily beat back Tea Party challenges? Keep in mind as well that two weeks ago these same pundits were explaining how the Republican establishment had figured out how to beat Tea Party-backed candidates!

I could go on, but I hope you see my point. What all these instant analyses have in common is a desire to draw national implications from a local race that, in the absence of data to the contrary, likely turned primarily on local constituent concerns. This tendency to draw sweeping conclusions from limited data is an unfortunate characteristic of today’s social-media driven punditry. That strategy may increase readership, but often at the expense of getting the story right.

So why did Cantor lose? We know from the PPP poll I cited above that he was not very popular in his district; only 43% of Republicans and 23% of independents approved of him, compared to 49% and 66% expressing disapproval, respectively. It is also the case that the House Republican leadership was not very popular (41% approval among Republicans, and only 16% among independents). Finally, we know turnout was up from the Republican primary in 2012 (a presidential election year) by about 20,000 voters according to Martina Berger, in an open-primary state in which there was no Democratic primary in Cantor’s district, so it is likely that independents participated in the Republican primary to a greater degree than might be expected. I hesitate to say much more about the composition of yesterday’s electorate without more data, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Cantor lost primarily because many voters viewed him as too concerned with leadership issues and thus out of touch with local district concerns. That’s not very earthshattering, and it is disappointing to those seeking some deeper meaning in Cantor’s defeat. But sometimes the simplest explanations are the best. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, and until more data comes in, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Update 1:16.  The WashingtonPost is doubling down on the immigration angle here and dismissing the polling data I cited by saying that the poll doesn’t survey only Republicans.  Of course, it does have results for Republicans but to find them you have to actually read the poll which, evidently, the WaPo writers find too time consuming.  And, of course, the Virginia primary is open to anyone regardless of partisan affiliation, so it’s useful to know the opinions of non-Republicans as well. Now, it may be, as the writer would have us believe, that turnout was dominated by the 23% who opposed immigration reform rather than the 70+% who supported it. But you can’t simply assert that this was the case without supporting evidence.

Update 1:56.  I haven’t said much about whether crossover voting by Democrats along with independents contributed to Cantor’s defeat (but see this!)  However, an initial analysis by Michael McDonald and by Scott Clement suggests the evidence doesn’t support the crossover voting thesis, although in the absence of exit polls it is hard to tell conclusively.