The Washington Post

Eric Cantor keeps blaming Democrats for his tea party primary loss. That’s wishful thinking.

UPDATE: This post initially went up after then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's (R-Va.) shocking primary loss in June 2014. We are re-upping it in light of Cantor's claim in a new interview that his reelection was sabotaged by Democrats in an unprecedented way.

Rep. Eric Cantor's unexpected Republican primary loss kicked off rapid speculation on how the House majority leader lost to a poorly-funded opponent in a Virginia district whose primary Cantor won with 79 percent support in 2012. One possibility is that district Democrats crossed over and voted for Cantor's opponent, David Brat.

Virginia's lack of party registration makes it difficult to pin down whether Democrats crossed over in large numbers, but local-level turnout provides some indirect clues on whether this phenomenon was widespread. On two counts, the data cast doubt on whether Democratic cross-over voting caused Cantor's loss.

While Republican primary turnout spiked by 28 percent over 2012, according to the State Board of Elections, Cantor received nearly 8,500 fewer votes this year than he did in the 2012 Republican primary, a drop that was larger than Brat's 7,200-vote margin of victory. Regardless of how many Democrats turned out to oppose Cantor, he still would have prevailed had he maintained the same level of support as in his 2012 landslide.

If Democrats showed up in large numbers to vote against Cantor, turnout should have spiked highest from 2012 in Democratic-leaning areas, with Cantor seeing an especially large drop-off in support. In fact, turnout rose slightly more in counties that voted more heavily for Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election.

Likewise, Cantor saw the biggest drop-off in support in Republican strongholds of Hanover (-44 percentage points) and New Kent (-44 points), counties where Obama drew just over 30 percent of the vote in 2012. In Henrico County where Obama won 55 percent support, Cantor's drop-off was a smaller 32 points. The overall correlation between Obama's county support and Cantor's drop-off was clearly negative at -0.60, indicating that the higher Obama's 2012 support, the lower Republican primary turnout rose this year. This is consistent with the idea that Republicans largely drove the rise in turnout.

Turnout expert Michael McDonald of the United States Elections Project found similar results analyzing precinct-level data, reporting GOP primary turnout was lowest in the most Democratic-leaning areas of the state.

The evidence of Democratic cross-over voting is weak even after narrowing to the precinct level to 10 locations in Henrico County, which all voted 60 percent or more for Cantor's general election opponent in the 2012 general election. If Democrats banded together to embarrass Cantor in the GOP primary, this is where it would be most evident. Indeed, turnout did rise an average of 66 percent above the 2012 primary level in these precincts. But vote shares don't bear the rest of this out -- on average Cantor won 24 percentage points less support in these precincts, smaller than his 35-point drop in support statewide.

Some Democrats surely selected a Republican ballot and voted for David Brat, but Cantor's loss seems to be much more the result of weak support among Republican voters, some of whom showed up for a race they typically ignore to vote for the tea party conservative who was besieged with attack ads.

Read more:

The seismic political consequences of Eric Cantor's stunning loss

 How national tea party groups missed the David Brat boat

Cantor and the biggest upsets in political history

David Brat just beat Eric Cantor. Who is he? 

Scott Clement is the polling manager at The Washington Post, specializing in public opinion about politics, election campaigns and public policy.

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Get Zika news by email

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Comments
Show Comments
Republicans debated Saturday night. The South Carolina GOP primary and the Nevada Democratic caucuses are next on Feb. 20. Get caught up on the race.
The Post's Dan Balz says...
Rarely has the division between Trump and party elites been more apparent. Trump trashed one of the most revered families in Republican politics and made a bet that standing his ground is better than backing down. Drawing boos from the audience, Trump did not flinch. But whether he will be punished or rewarded by voters was the unanswerable question.
GOP candidates react to Justice Scalia's death
Quoted
I don't know how he knows what I said on Univision because he doesn't speak Spanish.
Sen. Marco Rubio, attacking Sen. Ted Cruz in Saturday night's very heated GOP debate in South Carolina. Soon after, Cruz went on a tirade in Spanish.
The Fix asks The State's political reporter where the most important region of the state is.
The State's Andy Shain says he could talk about Charleston, which represents a little bit of everything the state has to offer from evangelicals to libertarians, and where Ted Cruz is raising more money than anywhere else. In a twist, Marco Rubio is drawing strong financial support from more socially conservative Upstate. That said, Donald Trump is bursting all the conventional wisdom in the state. So maybe the better answer to this question is, "Wherever Trump is."
Past South Carolina GOP primary winners
South Carolina polling averages
Donald Trump leads in the first state in the South to vote, where he faces rivals Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
South Carolina polling averages
The S.C. Democratic primary is Feb. 27. Clinton has a significant lead in the state, whose primary falls one week after the party's Nevada caucuses.
62% 33%
The complicated upcoming voting schedule
Feb. 20

Democrats caucus in Nevada; Republicans hold a primary in South Carolina.

Feb. 23

Republicans caucus in Nevada.

Feb. 27

Democrats hold a primary in South Carolina.

Upcoming debates
Feb 25: GOP debate

on CNN, in Houston, Texas

March 3: GOP debate

on Fox News, in Detroit, Mich.

March 6: Democratic debate

on CNN, in Flint, Mich.

Campaign 2016
Where the race stands
Most Read

politics

the-fix

Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Close video player
Now Playing

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.