We have got used to polls being so reliable when it comes to predicting election results in the US that actual elections seem to be just a pro forma exercise to validate the polls. So last evening’s result in Virginia, where Republican House majority leader Eric Cantor lost his primary race was shocking.
I had heard some minor rumblings about a possible upset during the past week but did not pay it much attention since the media often like to make races appear closer than they are in order to drum up interest and readership. The classic case was the 2012 presidential election when the polling for some time predicted a convincing win for Barack Obama but the media talking heads and pundits were breathlessly treating it as a competitive race and some even had Mitt Romney winning easily.
So what happened in Virginia? Cantor had good name recognition and outspent his rival by a huge margin, $5.2 million to a measly $120,000, two things that usually lead to victory. Cantor had no scandals to deal with or major political missteps. And yet while his internal polls had shown him with a lead of over 30 points, he ended up losing 56-44%, a massive swing.
I don’t think this signals a major shift in the Republican party. One likely mundane reason for this outcome is that turnout in primary elections, especially in years that do not have a presidential election, tend to be very low and thus far more volatile. In yesterday’s primary, just 65,000 people voted. In the 2012 general election, 382,000 people voted in that same district of whom 223,000 voted for Cantor. This can be compared to just 29,000 votes that he got yesterday, while his opponent David Brat got 36,000 votes. In the 2012 primary election, Cantor won easily with 37,000 votes out of just 47,000 cast. The fact that more people voted in the 2014 primary than in the 2012 primary (confounding the usual off-presidential year downturn) suggests more that Brat managed to get some traction among the voters than that Cantor lost support.
I am not sorry to see Cantor lose. He seemed to be pretty much a snake-oil salesman. But I don’t expect much change in the party as a result of this. Brat is supported by the Tea Party but the Republican party establishment, of which Cantor is a member, has embraced most of the Tea Party agenda and tactics.
But this result will give huge boost to both the Tea Party and the media.