Missing in Action: How the pundits botched Eric Cantor’s defeat



“Incredible upset.”

When you see journalists use that kind of language about an election, what it really means—though almost no one ever says this--is that they blew it.

And that’s what happened with the stunning/shocking/incredible defeat of Eric Cantor.

The overwhelming majority of political journalists and pundits did not even see the possibility that a political neophyte named Dave Brat would knock off the House majority leader in Tuesday’s Virginia GOP primary. Most of them went home before it happened. There was no drumbeat of stories raising the possibility that Cantor might lose, as there has been with other Republicans facing Tea Party challengers.

The press was, if anything, dismissive. The Washington Post, with a big chunk of its circulation in Virginia, reported on the morning of the primary that Brat would fall “far short,” adding: “The question in this race is how large Cantor’s margin of victory will be.”

Actually, the question turned out to be how badly the virtually unknown college professor would beat the incumbent.

Salon, in a pre-primary piece, said it would be “hilarious and amazing” if Cantor lost, but that was “just highly unlikely.”

It’s not that pundits should be able to accurately forecast every race; it’s that in this case, most didn’t even acknowledge there was a competitive race. I couldn’t find an advance piece about the Cantor primary in the New York Times.

What the media too often forget, and this is hardly the first time, is that anything can happen in a low-turnout primary.

Having utterly missed the moment, the pundits are now shoveling out explanations for why Cantor lost the race they failed to take seriously.

Talk radio played a role: Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin relentlessly pounded Cantor, especially on immigration, and boosted Brat. Ingraham even campaigned for Brat at a rally.

“Ms. Ingraham was so taken aback at the size of the crowd — inside the clubhouse, hundreds of people crammed onto staircase landings, leaned over railings and peered down at her from above — she wondered aloud what was really going on,” the New York Times reports. ‘We all looked at each other, saying, “He could totally win,”’ Ms. Ingraham said in an interview.”

Other explanations:

Cantor was out of touch with the district: He was busy traveling the country raising money for other candidates and spent less time in the Richmond area.

Cantor’s big money backfired: He outraised Brat 20-1 but poured much of it into negative ads that created sympathy for his opponent.

Immigration played a role: Brat had pounded Cantor for being in favor of amnesty, although he was simply open to negotiations with Democrats about legislation that could provide illegal immigrants with a pathway to citizenship.

Still, the same media that misjudged the race are also capable of reading too much into a single primary. On the same day, after all, Lindsey Graham, who actually voted for immigration reform in the Senate, easily won his race in South Carolina.

Of course, these primaries are so much more interesting when journalists can milk them for sweeping national implications. But with Cantor announcing yesterday that he’ll step down as majority leader, we can launch a whole new round of speculation about the succession battle.

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