The punditry that has arisen since the primary-election defeat of Eric Cantor, Republican Majority Leader (and Speaker-in-Waiting) of the House of Representatives, has mostly subtracted from the sum total of human knowledge. So, naturally, I want to contribute. (At least no trees were killed in the promulgation of this analysis.) Since a stunned David Brat, economics professor and novice candidate, acknowledged his victory over Cantor last Tuesday and immediately went into hiding, the Chattering Class has been having convulsions.
The Tea Party (with which Mr. Brat has some kind of relationship), having been declared dead! by the CC because it had won no primaries thus far this year, was declared risen and triumphant! Back in charge! Immigration reform, disdain for which was one of the only things Mr. Brat actually discussed in the campaign, was dead! in the Congress of the United States! Forever! Will Brat run for President?! What does this mean for Hillary’s chances?? Yadayadayada.
There’s an old country saying that I admire: “Thing about a cat is, if he sits on a hot stove he’ll never sit on a hot stove again. Other thing about a cat is, he’ll never sit on a cold stove either.” In other words, don’t learn the wrong lesson from a painful experience. Congressional candidates across the country have stricken “immigration reform” from their talking points, even though it’s a cold stove (another Republican primary, the same night, was won by a full-throated advocate of immigration reform, Lindsey Graham).
What are the right lessons to learn from Mr. Cantor’s flame-out? Mostly old ones, that have been learned before. I learned some of them long ago, when I was media adviser to Congressman J. Kenneth Robinson, who represented Mr. Cantor’s 7th District (it was configured differently than it is now).
1. To understand the outcome of an election, don’t think only about how the winner won, but consider how the loser lost. Powerful people (such as Cantor) often lose sure things, while others (such as Brat) win despite themselves. Losers of sure things are invariably guilty of a loss of focus, of forgetting that the job of a representative is to represent. Even the fictional, Machiavellian Frank Underwood of House of Cards, when forced to conduct two critical meetings at once, one about his national role and one about his constituents’ concerns, chose to be physically present with his constituents. Eric Cantor, eternally busy dialing for dollars and angling for power, would not have made that choice.
Winners-despite-themselves usually just happen to be standing there when the aforementioned loser implodes. Thus with Mr. Brat, who was the last person (possibly excepting Mr. Cantor) who thought he was going to win last Tuesday night. If Mr. Cantor earns a full measure of contempt from the CC for failing to see his defeat coming, how are we to judge Mr. Brat, who had no clue that he was going to win? He was no giant-killer, he was standing there looking the other way when the dead giant hit the ground at his feet.
2. Congressional elections are local elections. They have almost nothing to do with the popularity of the President or the approval ratings of Congress as a whole. I have yet to hear a pundit recognize this fact. It is easy to make large generalizations about national trends, just as it is easy to explain the entire stock market by looking up the Dow Jones average. But if you’re going to invest in a specific stock, you should probably do more work (yeah, I know — index fund) and if you want to understand Congressional elections you have to look at each individual district and every candidate.
That’s a lot of work. So what you get instead is bland, uninformed commentary that treats the mid-term elections as if they were simply a segmented presidential election. It’s easier that way. It’s also why no one — no pollster, no pundit, no journalist, no consultant, not even the candidates themselves — had a clue that Cantor was about to lose.
2a. Congressional elections have nothing to do with Congressional approval ratings. Ask a Catholic what they think of the Church (let’s say, before the current Pope) and you were likely to get an unfavorable rating. Ask the same Catholic about her parish priest and it is highly unlikely you would hear anything but adoration. Contradiction? Hardly. Two different things.
The general public’s generalized disdain for the Congress as a whole is a cliche, and has been for decades. It means nothing, for the simple reason that a) the Congress as a whole never runs for election and b) there is not another one that we could choose if it did. It is an institution. We elect a representative to serve in it, and a vote for a representative is not a vote of approval of the institution. Why should it be necessary to even point this out? Because the CC insists on talking as if the opposite were true.
2b. Off-year Congressional elections have nothing to do with the President’s approval rating. Nothing. I’m not even going to argue this point, see 2a. In presidential-election years, the leader of the ticket has some effect down-ticket, but it has been greatly overemphasized, and exceptions are the rule.
3. People can still beat money. What once was generally true is now true, sometimes. Cantor blew $2 million on nasty TV ads while Brat barely kept the phones working in his campaign office. In order for a pauper to beat a Master of the Universe, many stars have to align:
- the vote has to be depressed; fewer people vote in off-year elections than in presidential, fewer in primaries than in general, fewer when the outcome seems certain. Of the 500,000 registered voters in Virginia’s 7th, 65,000 voted in the primary (Virginia does not register voters by party affiliation). Advantage Brat.
- either the underdog has to have a very good ground game (voter ID, canvassing, GOTV) or the overdog has to forget to have one. Advantage Brat, not because he had a good one, but because Cantor forgot.
- the Masters of the Universe don’t see it coming. If they do, they will simply bury the underdog in money.
4. Journalism is dead. If an informed electorate is the keystone of democracy, then this democracy is doomed. Fewer news outlets are hiring fewer people to report on what is happening, while FOX and CNN market celebrity bimbos (and bimbettes) to bloviate about what might happen. Facts are endangered species, opinions proliferate without regard to reality. This primary was deciding the future of one of the ten or so most powerful people in US politics, and virtually no one covered it until they were blindsided by the outcome. No wonder their commentary on it is so woefully uninformed, both about what happened and what it means.
Never mind. Book the controversial guys to explain Cantor’s fall, there may be no content but it’s good TV. Book the architects of the disastrous Iraq War to explain what the President should do about Iraq now. They’re idiots, of course, but it’s good TV. Hey, let’s get Brat on, have him do his impression of Sarah Palin again. Good TV!
CNN bookers, you know where to reach me.