GOP House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s campaign was supposedly just as shocked as the rest of the political world after his utterly unexpected loss to underdog Tea Party-backed primary challenger Dave Brat Tuesday. Prior to his loss, Team Cantor released internal polling showing he had an ironclad 34 point lead over Brat. Those numbers were clearly wrong.
In a potential sign of trouble for the GOP, Cantor’s questionable poll came from a pollster all the main national Republican Party campaign organisations rely on for data.
Cantor’s poll was conducted by John McLaughlin and his firm, McLaughlin & Associates — and this race isn’t the first one they have gotten wrong. McLaughlin made incorrect predictions on at least four U.S. Senate races since 2012, multiple House races, and several state results in the 2012 presidential election.
“I don’t know that he’s a bad pollster, but recently that firm has had some substantial, well-noted accuracy issues,” a Republican pollster told Business Insider. “I don’t want to say that McLaughlin’s bad but he has had some very prominent, prominent, prominent misses over the last couple of cycles. Very prominent.”
One national Democratic operative who spoke to Business Insider had harsh words for McLaughlin.
“It’s humiliating,” the operative said of McLaughlin’s Cantor polling. “Who’s paying this person? Seriously, these are big checks. These are not small checks.”
This is where Republicans might start getting nervous.
According to the firm’s website McLaughlin & Associates also conducts polling for the four major Republican national campaign organisations; the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, and the Republican Governors Association. McLaughlin & Associates also claims to represent 12 state Republican parties, six sitting GOP senators, and 20 sitting Republican members of the House of Representatives. Even foreign conservative politicians are relying on the firm. McLaughlin & Associates claims to represent the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom and Canada as well as Israel’s Likud.
The Republican pollster said they “would have to believe” the incorrect prediction on Cantor would have an effect on McLaughlin’s standing in the political world.
“It was a member of leadership, a very high profile miss,” the pollster said. “We’re paid to catch this stuff that’s why we’re in the business.”
However, the Republican pollster dismissed the idea national GOP organisations would be hurt by working with McLaughlin’s firm. They said work for the Republican campaign committees typically “spreads out” among a selection of “smaller firms” and a group they described as the “big five” GOP pollsters; McLaughlin & Associates, The Tarrance Group, Wilson Perkins Allen Opinion Research, American Viewpoint, and Public Opinion Strategies.
“It’s not like McLaughlin is the only pollster that is talking to those committees,” said the pollster. “I wouldn’t say the national committees would be in trouble, I would say specific campaigns could be in trouble.”
McLaughlin didn’t respond to a request for comment from Business Insider Wednesday, but in an interview with National Journal, he blamed Democrats for the discrepancy between his data and the actual election result. He said Democratic activists skewed the numbers by encouraging their supporters to vote against Cantor in what was an open primary. That explanation has been quite thoroughly debunked by experts.
The Republican pollster who talked with Business Insider also isn’t buying McLaughlin’s explanation for failing to accurately predict the outcome of Cantor’s race. They pointed to the lack of spending by Brat and outside groups as evidence a dramatic shift in the landscape in Cantor’s district in the final weeks of the race was “just not possible.”
“I’ve seen numbers move to a rather large degree over a few weeks, but this is just ridiculous,” the pollster explained. “To go from 34 points up to down by 12?”
Democrats who talked to Business Insider offered two alternate scenarios to explain McLaughlin’s miss.
A Democratic Party official who spoke to Business Insider hours after Cantor’s loss suggested his campaign’s “totally bogus” poll showed his team was either unable to analyse data or deliberately releasing bad numbers “just to spin reporters.” The official pointed to the infamously flawed polling put out by Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012 and noted, “Republicans have kind of a track record of putting out bad polls.” Because of this, they speculated Cantor’s problematic poll shows one of two things; either GOP campaigns keep purposefully putting out phony polls, or they don’t know how to properly conduct the real thing.
The operative who talked to Business Insider Thursday agreed the Romney and Cantor campaigns raised the question of whether Republicans were leaking bad numbers or have a larger “data problem.”
“What I can’t tell is whether the polling is bad or they’re just putting out bullshit information,” the operative said.
The operative added they were leaning towards the suspicion Cantor just had been “willing to lie” about his numbers in the final weeks of the campaign. They said this theory was based on scepticism McLaughlin really would have had a poll that was so far off from reality.
“He was just not up 34 points,” they said.
The Republican pollster said they did not believe the conspiracy theory McLaughlin and Team Cantor deliberately put out bad data.
“I doubt that. We accuse the other side of doing it all the time, they accuse us of doing it,” said the pollster. “Internally, we all know that’s not it. Any national reputable pollster is not going to release bad data underneath their name. That’s not going to happen.”
Instead, the Republican pollster agreed with the Democrats’ first theory of how McLaughlin got Cantor’s race wrong — they attributed it to flawed methodology.
“It has to be a sampling error,” the pollster said.
While the Democratic operative stressed they’re sceptical McLaughlin really thought Cantor was up by 34 points, they said they would be thrilled if so many major GOP committees are working with a pollster who got this so wrong.
“It’s no surprise they continue to lose if they’re relying on such fundamentally flawed data,” said the Democrat. “We hope they continue to use him.”
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