Great glee erupted among Democrats over Eric Cantor’s defeat – and also over the embarrassment to his pollster, who had predicted a landslide Cantor win.
Cantor’s pollster is John McLaughlin of New York, a Republican with whom I’ve worked on non-partisan projects. Full disclosure: I like John personally, and I greatly respect him professionally.
This week, McLaughlin sent out an email taking the blame and making an effort to understand and explain what happened. He wrote in part:
“There has been a great deal of speculation as to why our poll on May 28, was wrong. For this reason we undertook a post-primary survey. Knowing that our May 28, Republican primary voter poll was reflective of past Republican primary turnouts that were significantly smaller, we decided to conduct this study at our own expense to see which voters actually accounted for the much larger turnout in this year’s Republican primary. The sample that we used for the May 28, poll was selected from any voter who voted in any one of three Republican primaries – March, 2012 for President; June, 2012 for Congress and March, 2008 for President.
“The Virginia Republican primary system was totally open to all voters. It is now clear that Eric Cantor’s national standing gave the race a lot of local interest among many more voters than just past Republican primary voters, including politically interested Independents and Democrats as well. Without a parallel Democrat primary, this election was very similar to a wide-open jungle-style primary. It created an organic turnout of new voters not included in our previous poll of past primary voters.”
The post-election survey concludes that Cantor won with Republicans, but the Democrats and Independents gave the victory to David Brat.
McLaughlin’s memo is worth reading in full. It takes issue with some widely held views about the result (the role of immigration, for example). And it provides valuable insight into how polls work – and how they can be wrong.
It’s easy – and fun – to ridicule pollsters and rejoice when they’re wrong. It’s a lot more useful to learn something about polls and about politics in America today. I salute McLaughlin for how he handled this: with class and courage.
And I’m not surprised by that.