Frank Rich materializes and is asked to weigh in on the defeat of Eric Cantor. His reaction: How did you chuckleheads in the media miss this one?
Cantor’s fall, and the fact that no one in the mainstream press saw it coming, is yet another indication that the biggest political story since Obama’s 2008 victory remains baffling to many. How many times can one say this? The radical right — whether it uses the tea party rubric or not — has seized control of one of America’s two major political parties. The repeated reports of the tea party’s demise are always premature. Back in the fall of 2012, in the weeks before Obama’s reelection, I wrote a piece titled “The Tea Party Will Win in the End” making this case and arguing that signs seemingly suggesting otherwise (the tea party dropping to a 25 percent approval rating in a September 2012 Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll; the demise of Michele Bachmann) were utterly misleading.
Rich is giving himself too much credit. Did he ever predict that Eric Cantor would be in trouble? No. He never wrote about Cantor’s race. The first mention in New York Magazine of David Brat occurred on primary night, when Jonathan Chait covered the Cantor loss and suggested that the “shock contained by Cantor’s defeat is almost impossible to fully convey.” (True!) Just last week, Rich argued that “the GOP-Tea Party merger is complete,” which is not quite the same thing as predicting that Cantor—who had previously signed off on said merger—would go down.
I bring this up in order to give an epilogue to my Wednesday item about how the media’s graveyard-whistle (and the silence of big conservative PACs) allowed David Brat and local activists to sneak up on Cantor. Some reporters, like Politico’s Jake Sherman, the Washington Post's Robert Costa and Jenna Portnoy, and the New York Times’ Jeremy Peters, reported on the rumblings in the district. But one reason they weren’t joined by other national reporters was that the Cantor team pushed back aggressively on the idea that their guy was in trouble at all. The message: If you’re seriously covering the machinations of a county GOP convention and the ravings of David Brat, you’re insane, and you’re going to end up wiping yolk off your faces.
Anyone who’s seen a science fiction movie where one character (Keanu Reeves, typically) knows what’s up but keeps being silenced by the establishment might have guessed the next twist. I’ve seen a lot of these movies, and I didn’t. Still: By a great distance, the funniest reporting on the upset came from Shane Goldmacher, who was the first to talk to the pollster—John McLaughlin—who had found Cantor up by 34 points. McLaughlin also sent me his spin on the race.
Attacks on immigration and amnesty charges from the right in last week hurt, but primary turnout was 46,000 2 years ago. This time 65,000. This was a 40% increase in turnout. Over the weekend Democrats like Ben Jones and liberal media were driving their Democratic voters on the internet into the open primary. Democratic Congressman Gutierrez came in and attacked. So Eric got hit from right and left. In our poll two weeks out, Eric was stronger with Republicans at 70%-21% of the vote, but running under 50% among non-Republicans. We were polling Republican primary voters. Untold story is who were the new 20,000 primary voters? They probably aren't Republicans. Certainly the extra voter surge of non-Republican primary voters seriously hurt.
But as Goldmacher pointed out, Cantor’s overall vote tumbled from the 2012 primary to this year—from 37,369 to 28,902. Had he won as many votes as he did two years ago, he would have narrowly defeated Brat. And more Goldmacher: “The poll was conducted May 27 and 28 but leaked to the [Washington] 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.”
It’s not the point Rich was making, but it’s a good one. Nobody saw Cantor’s defeat coming. But the reporters who completely missed it were the ones who were close to the right insiders. They got leaked polling data! It was as valuable as a Zimbabwean nickel. The reporters who came closest to the truth ignored the insiders, got heat for it, and taught us all a valuable lesson: Ignore flacks, head to where the voters live.