The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Should I have seen Eric Cantor’s loss coming?

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I found out about Eric Cantor's loss after it had already happened.

On the way to help my wife put the kids to bed last Tuesday night at about 7:45 pm, I clicked over to the Post's front page to see a banner headline blaring the news.  Prior to reading that story, I am not sure I could have named Cantor's primary opponent. (I know now it's Dave Brat, the heavy favorite to replace Cantor in the Richmond-area district this fall.) I, quite candidly, never saw it coming.

The New York Times media reporter/columnist David Carr penned a piece on Monday scolding the political press corps for that swing and miss, writing (in part):

Plenty of reporters are imprisoned in cubes in Washington, but stretched news organizations aren’t eager to spend money on planes, rental cars and hotel rooms so that employees can bring back reports from the hustings. While the Internet has been a boon to modern reporting — All Known Thought One Click Away — it tends to pin journalists at their desks....
....Simple blocking and tackling, as old as journalism itself: Mr. McConnell left the newsroom, asked people questions and listened to the answers. And in the process, he saw a puff of smoke that turned into a wildfire, the kind of thing that’s not visible on a computer screen.

Before I get into the meat of Carr's argument laid out above, I have just one nit to pick. He says that national outlets entirely ignored the race.  Let me stand up for the Post here.  Back on May 13, WaPo ran a front page story entitled "Eric Cantor’s tea party opponent in Va. primary may be picking up momentum" specifically about, well, Brat picking up momentum. The story had a Richmond dateline on it; we have two reporters based in Richmond. On May 10, the Post's Jenna Portnoy had written a piece detailing the fact that Cantor had been booed at a local Republican convention. Two pieces a month in advance of the primary noting that Cantor was facing some real unrest in his backyard is not ignoring the race.

Now, to the broader point Carr is making: That people like me would have known that Cantor was going to lose if only we had driven the few hours south to Richmond and talked to actual voters.  True? Maybe.

I will admit that I talk to "average" voters much less than I did when I was a younger reporter. Some of that is a function of the way journalism is changing -- Carr's "All Known Thought One Click Away" -- and some is due to the fact I am older now with a family and less willingness to travel at a moment's notice.  But, I spent plenty of time in the 2000s traveling around the country and talking to voters. And, sometimes, those conversations proved revelatory -- giving me a real sense of momentum (or the reverse of momentum) for a candidate. But, just as often those conversations were with people who deeply believed in a candidate who had zero chance of winning (and didn't). If every candidate who someone (or someones) told me was going to pull the big upset actually did it, virtually every current Member of Congress would by now be a former Member of Congress.

Anecdotal evidence, the basis of so much journalism prior to the rise of the data movement and still, to my mind, over-relied upon -- is just that: anecdotal. Roughly 65,000 people voted in the Cantor-Brat primary; Brat won by more than 7,200 votes. Assuming that what a non-scientific sample  of 1, 10 or even 100 people in the district thought about Cantor (or Brat) in the run-up to the race -- the shoe-leather reporting prized by Carr -- was indicative of how 65,000 people were planning to vote seems to me to be somewhat misguided. (Now, if all 100 people a reporter talked to in the district loudly derided Cantor as an out of step liberal, then I take back my previous point. But, my guess is that wouldn't have happened.)

For me, polling -- as imperfect as it is -- remains the gold standard when it comes to understanding the state of play in any race. And, on this point, Carr and I are on common ground. He writes:

Data-driven news sites are all the rage, but what happens when newspapers no longer have the money to commission comprehensive, legitimate polls? The quants took a beating on this one, partly because journalists are left to read the same partisan surveys and spotty local reporting as Mr. Cantor’s campaign staff, whose own polling had him up by more than 30 points.

Correct. Polling in House races -- particularly in a primary -- is difficult and rare.  The only piece of data that most of us had to go on in the run-up to the June 10 primary vote was an internal survey done by Cantor pollster John McLaughlin that showed the incumbent at 62 percent and up 34 points. That survey turned out to be woefully wrong and shame on us for taking it at face value. (McLaughlin is a known commodity in DC political circles; he was the pollster of choice for George Allen during his rise up the political ranks.) But, we had no other piece of data to go on and, as I noted above, even if we had flooded the 7th district with reporters we would have still only had anecdotal "evidence" of what was happening in the race.

All of the above is not to say that Carr is entirely wrong or that I don't bear any culpability in missing the Cantor upset entirely. In retrospect, there were other signs of Cantor's building problems that I, frankly, misread. I interpreted his heavy spending -- over $5 million -- on the race as the sort of cautiousness that smart politicians -- especially those in party leadership -- tend to exhibit. (John Boehner spent more than $12 $1 million on a primary race earlier this year that he won with 69 71 percent of the vote; Mitch McConnell spent $12 million while winning his May 20 primary with 60 percent.)  Cantor's decision to spend primary day in Washington, D.C. going about regular business struck me as a symbol of his confidence in the outcome, not a leading indicator of his out-of-touchness with the district.

For someone in my business -- aka being (or at last trying to be) ahead of the political curve, those wrong-headed assumptions are the sort of things I need to make sure I learn from and, hopefully, avoid making again.  But, even in this Internet-driven political era in which it seems as though genuine surprises or real upsets are a thing of the past, lightning does still strike.  That's not to absolve me of blame for not better identifying the storm building against Cantor. Rather, it's a simple statement of fact; sometimes, contrary to all collected wisdom and the ways in which races usually work, a Dave Brat wins.

For me, that's what makes politics -- and covering politics -- so great. Imagine a world in which nothing ever happens that you didn't already expect or know would happen. Boring. So, here's how I see my job as a political reporter: not to always know what will happen next but rather to make sure that when something happens I didn't expect, to figure out why and explain it to people as well and quickly as I can. I suspect on that Carr and I agree.