Eric Cantor’s Pollster Tries to Explain Why His Survey Showed Cantor Up 34 Points

This was not the first time Cantor pollster John McLaughlin has been wrong.

Rep. Eric Cantor speaks with Congressional Leadership on Capitol Hill on January 5, 2009.
National Journal
Shane Goldmacher
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Shane Goldmacher
June 11, 2014, 1:40 a.m.

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.

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