Eric Cantor’s pollster whiffed.
Less than a week before voters dumped the House majority leader, an internal poll for Cantor’s campaign, trumpeted to the Washington Post, showed Cantor cruising to a 34-point victory in his primary. Instead, Cantor got crushed, losing by 10 percentage points.
How did Cantor’s pollster, veteran Republican survey-taker John McLaughlin, get the historic race so terribly wrong?
First, let’s look at the poll. The survey had Cantor ahead of his opponent, little-known professor David Brat, 62 percent to 28 percent, with 11 percent of voters undecided, according to the Post. It polled 400 likely Republican primary voters on May 27 and 28.
It was supposed to have had a margin of error of 4.9 percentage points. The error, of course, was far larger. Statistically, polls are expected to fall outside that margin of error on 1 in 20 surveys. But in the end, it undercounted Brat’s support by about 27 percentage points and overestimated Cantor’s by 17 points. The poll was widely mocked on Twitter.
In an email to National Journal, McLaughlin, whose firm has been paid nearly $75,000 by Cantor’s campaign since 2013, offered several explanations: unexpectedly high turnout, last-minute Democratic meddling, and stinging late attacks on amnesty and immigration.
“Primary turnout was 45,000 2 years ago,” McLaughlin wrote. “This time 65,000. This was an almost 50% increase in turnout.”
Translation: McLaughlin’s estimate of who was a “likely Republican” voter was way, way off the mark. But Cantor’s total number of votes still shrank, even as the total number of primary voters went up dramatically in 2014. He secured 37,369 primary votes in 2012 and less than 29,000 this year, with 100 percent of precincts reporting.
Meanwhile, McLaughin wrote that “attacks on immigration and amnesty charges from the right in last week hurt.”
Then McLaughlin cited the “Cooter” factor — the fact that former Rep. Ben Jones, a Georgia Democrat who played Cooter in The Dukes of Hazzard, had written an open letter urging Democrats to vote for Brat to help beat Cantor.
“Over the weekend Democrats like Ben Jones and liberal media were driving their Democratic voters on the internet into the open primary,” McLaughlin wrote. “Eric got hit from right and left. In our polls two weeks out Eric was stronger with Republicans at 70% of the vote, but running under 50% among non Republicans.”
“Untold story,” McLaughlin continued, “is who were the new primary voters? They were probably not Republicans.”
Another problem, unmentioned by McLaughlin in the email, was timing. The poll was conducted May 27 and 28 but leaked to the Post on June 6. The dynamics on the ground could well have shifted by then, but Team Cantor may have wanted to put on a happy face. They ended up with egg on it instead.
This was not McLaughlin’s first out-of-whack-with-the-results poll. For instance, a 2013 McLaughlin survey showing Democrat Ed Markey nearly tied in his Massachusetts Senate race inspired California winemaker John Jordan to plunge $1.4 million of his own money into a super PAC backing Markey’s opponent. Markey won by 10 percentage points.
David Nir of Daily Kos Elections compiled a list last year of inaccurate McLaughlin surveys. In October 2012, McLaughlin polls showed Mitt Romney winning in Colorado (by 4 points) and Virginia (by 7 points), even though Romney lost those states by 5 points and 4 points, respectively. In late October 2012, a McLaughlin poll in Rhode Island showed Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse up by only 8 points against his GOP challenger. Whitehouse won by 30.
Even that poll, though, was more accurate than his last one for Cantor.