Why the GOP Still Struggles With Polling

Cantor’s shocking defeat proves there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

U.S. Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) (L) speaks as House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) (R) looks on during a news conference after a House Republicans Conference meeting December 3, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. House GOPs held the meeting to discuss their agenda.
National Journal
Alex Roarty
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Alex Roarty
June 15, 2014, 3:56 p.m.

Re­pub­lic­ans vowed to fix the polling prob­lems that plagued their 2012 cam­paigns.

It looks as though they still have some work to do.

Eric’s Can­tor’s shock­ing de­feat Tues­day is be­ing blamed on any num­ber of factors. But among the seasoned Re­pub­lic­an cam­paign op­er­at­ives, the biggest in­tern­al cul­prit is seen as the ma­jor­ity lead­er’s long­time poll­ster, John McLaugh­lin, whose sur­vey of the Vir­gin­ia race showed Can­tor lead­ing his op­pon­ent by 34 points. Can­tor went on to lose by 11 points — an un­fathom­able 45-point swing.

The er­ror was re­min­is­cent of the lit­any of polling mis­takes made by Re­pub­lic­an cam­paigns in the 2012 elec­tion, when the party’s in­tern­al data pre­dicted everything from vic­tory for Mitt Rom­ney to marked gains in the House and Sen­ate. But while those prob­lems were rooted in dif­fi­culty sur­vey­ing young and minor­ity voters, the mis­steps in Can­tor’s race un­der­score an­oth­er di­lemma for Re­pub­lic­ans: The con­tin­ued re­li­ance, by at least some of their can­did­ates, on poll­sters with poor track re­cords.

It’s not as if McLaugh­lin’s sur­veys were held in high es­teem be­fore Tues­day. His polls were routinely off the mark in 2012, miss­ing wildly in a host of pres­id­en­tial states such as Col­or­ado and Vir­gin­ia. His repu­ta­tion wasn’t good in of­fi­cial Re­pub­lic­an circles: One GOP cam­paign aide con­firmed that McLaugh­lin was not on the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee’s list of pre­ferred poll­sters. Among GOP op­er­at­ives, his poor track re­cord was well-known.

Ex­cept, ap­par­ently, with Can­tor, who had used McLaugh­lin for years.

“Can­tor has used him for the start,” said one Re­pub­lic­an poll­ster, who re­ques­ted an­onym­ity to speak can­didly. “He did [former Vir­gin­ia Sen. George] Al­len’s cam­paign, did [former Vir­gin­ia Gov. Jim] Gilmore’s cam­paign. He’s had a long track re­cord and done a lot of oth­er things in this busi­ness; if can­did­ates work with some­body and have a good work­ing re­la­tion­ship with them, they tend to stay with them.”

“Prob­ably up un­til this point, there’s no reas­on to make a change,” the source ad­ded. “Now that there is, it’s a moot point.”

Ex­plan­a­tions for the er­ror vary. McLaugh­lin him­self told Na­tion­al Journ­al that he thought Demo­crat­ic in­ter­fer­ence had played a role, and he blamed high­er-than-ex­pec­ted turnout. Turnout was, in fact, about a third high­er than in Can­tor’s last primary, but most ana­lysts have mocked the sug­ges­tion that Demo­crats tipped the elec­tion in Dave Brat’s fa­vor. (For one, the ma­jor­ity lead­er ac­tu­ally earned few­er votes in 2014 than in 2012, des­pite the in­crease in turnout.)

McLaugh­lin was also not the only poll­ster whose polls missed the mark. In an early June sur­vey, Vox Pop­uli, a GOP polling firm that formed just this year, found Can­tor win­ning by 12 points, 52 per­cent to 40 per­cent.

Brent Seaborn, a poll­ster with Vox Pop­uli, sug­ges­ted that Brat’s late mo­mentum helped skew the race in his favo — but he also be­lieved, like McLaugh­lin, that med­dling from the oth­er party helped con­trib­ute to the er­rant poll.

“We be­lieve that Brat sig­ni­fic­antly closed the gap in the days lead­ing up to Elec­tion Day,” Seaborn said. “Ad­di­tion­ally, we be­lieve many more in­de­pend­ent and Demo­crat voters we had fa­vor­ing Brat turned out.”

The in­ac­curacies have been seized on by politicos with­in and out­side the Re­pub­lic­an Party as proof that their polls can’t be taken ser­i­ously. McLaugh­lin also polls for Rep. Jack King­ston, who is in a run­off race against former busi­ness ex­ec­ut­ive Dav­id Per­due in a fight for the GOP Sen­ate nom­in­a­tion in Geor­gia. A spokes­man for Per­due’s cam­paign mocked in­tern­al polls taken by McLaugh­lin and re­leased by the King­ston cam­paign that showed the House mem­ber lead­ing the race.

The Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­ori­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee, in an email sent a day after Can­tor’s de­feat, sug­ges­ted that neither McLaugh­lin nor Vox Pop­uli should be taken ser­i­ously.

“Vox Pop­uli was off by a whop­ping 33 points. For too long, DC me­dia and elec­tion ‘fore­casters’ have taken Vox Pop­uli and McLaugh­lin ser­i­ously, in­cor­por­at­ing them in­to their Sen­ate fore­casts des­pite McLaugh­lin’s ter­rible 2012 re­cord and Vox Pop­uli’s laugh­able bi­as. Will last night’s un­be­liev­ably wrong pre­dic­tion change any­thing?”

Those con­cerns could spread to oth­er Re­pub­lic­an poll­sters.

“You’re go­ing to have a lot of people tak­ing stock of who their poll­sters are, and wheth­er their data is ac­cur­ate,” said one GOP strategist.

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