Eric Cantor: 4 Things I Learned from his Ridiculous Primary Loss
It’s been a while but now that the NBA playoffs are over (Congratulations Spurs) I am trying to get my life back in order. My life basically stops during the NBA playoffs but unfortunately life in general did not oblige me by doing the same. On the positive side this gives me a lot to talk about in the near future and I will start with Eric Cantor losing his seat as the House Representative for Virginia’s District 7. Now losing his seat is one thing, but being that Cantor also held the second highest rank in Congress this is pretty major in the political world. Here are 4 things I learned about politics from his stunning loss.
- All politics are local –This is not a new rule among politicians and is perhaps the most well known and most important political rule. My interpretation of it has always been that if you are aspiring to hold a national office you must first understand that a nation is made up of several different regions and the people in those regions all have different values and priorities. As a result, you must find a language that is not targeted simply at where you came from but also one that speaks to the values and priorities of a lot of very different people. Conversely, if you are a city or state politician you really need to be in touch with the people that reside in your city or district. You need to understand what their values and priorities are and you need to understand how legislation (or the lack thereof) is negatively affecting their lives and speak to their needs.
Eric Cantor did not do this. By most accounts Eric Cantor did not visit his district much during the last election and he did not understand that the values and priorities of the people in his newly gerrymandered district had changed.
- Polls do not predict turnout – This was a very insightful piece of information I picked up while looking through the results of this race. Eric Cantor (much like Mitt Romney) thought that he was going to win the race pretty convincingly because the polls he received showed that he was ahead. While polls can sometimes be useful in helping a politician gauge his or her standing, they only draw off the participants from the last election. Pollsters generally only gather information from people who voted in the last election because they think those are the people who are most likely to vote in the next one. Therefore, if there is a turnout of people who did not vote in the last election the pre vote polls could be disastrously incorrect. The only poll that really matters is the one that happens on election night.
This is a useful piece of information for both frontrunners and underdogs. If you’re a frontrunner I think the best approach is to always be looking for the fault in the polls. Ask yourself who you might be reaching that you are not doing a good job of getting to. A few extra votes on election night are always a good thing. Again, Cantor did not do this. As I said earlier he did not visit his district much during the last election cycle (giving people the impression that he took them for granted) and when he did he only held fundraisers for people who he was sure were going to vote for him anyway. On the other side of the coin, if you are an underdog and behind in the polls a good strategy may be to draw people who don’t usually vote into the election. It’s easier said than done, but being a newcomer to politics is never a very easy proposition. In this case the higher the turnout the better your odds (you hope). Interestingly, Cantor’s race had a relatively low turnout which his team thought would favor him. Unfortunately, the people who came to vote were not voting for Cantor.
- Do not raise the profile of your opponent – When Cantor got an idea that his opponent might be mounting a serious challenge; he spent tens of thousands of dollars in tv ads calling out Brat by name. The problem was by most accounts Brat was a relative unknown and Cantor had miscalculated. By calling out his opponent by name he gave voters the idea that Brat was a legitimate threat and put Brat on an equal playing field with him. He also basically did Brat’s advertising for him, which was a major plus for Brat because he did not have nearly the amount of money Cantor did. In short, instead of demolishing his opponent under a barrage of television ads, Cantor made a relative unknown seem like a legitimate threat and basically gave disenchanted voters someone to rally around.
- Do not allow your opponent to shape the debate – This one is also easier said than done because in the end, every election circles around who has the power to get their side of the story out to the most voters. Depending on the makeup of the electorate, this could naturally be very difficult for one candidate and relatively easy for the other.
In Cantor’s case he abdicated his position as frontrunner by focusing more on national politics than he was on local politics. He misjudged the effect of gerrymandering on his district and didn’t realize that the district had actually become conservative in a way that now worked against the positions he was taking in Washington DC. This is likely because he didn’t visit his district enough to know what voters were thinking and what they were expecting him to say. This gave his opponent an opening to attack him for being in favor of amnesty for illegal immigrants. The interesting thing is that Cantor is actually stridently against amnesty for illegal immigrants, but again he gave his opponent an opening by appearing not to be in touch with the values of his constituents. As I said earlier, he then overreacted to this relatively minor attack by levying an incredible ad campaign against his opponent. This had the adverse effect of making Cantor appear weak when he was trying to appear strong.