Foreshadowing Eric Cantor's Defeat

06/17/2014 11:46 am ET | Updated Aug 17, 2014

Commentators are wrong in suggesting that the problems that resulted in Majority Leader Eric Cantor's primary loss were new or that they were confined to the Republican primary electorate. In reality, Cantor's weaknesses were obvious two years ago in our poll of likely general election voters in Virginia's 7th Congressional District for Democratic candidate Wayne Powell.

In June 2012, Cantor's personal popularity rating was 37% favorable, 27% neutral, 31% unfavorable. The intensity of feelings tilted to the negative side: 25% strongly unfavorable versus 20% strongly favorable.

More voters wanted to replace Cantor (43%) than wanted to re-elect him (41%).

Cantor received majority approval for his handling of only one of 13 issue tested (crime), and was net-negative on six issues: controlling government spending, reducing the federal budget deficit, making health care more affordable and available, illegal immigration, reforming the way Congress does business, and handling the abortion issue.

Large majorities believed Cantor "mainly works on national issues" as opposed to "issues that affect this area" and was "mostly interested in his own political career" rather than "serving the people of this district." Substantial pluralities believed he was "too close to special interest groups," and "out of step with your views on issues that matter to you," and "out of touch with the problems of the people in the district."

VA-7 voters were evenly divided over whether Cantor was "part of the problem in Washington" or "working to change things in Washington;" "someone you can always trust to do the right thing" or not; and whether he was "effective at getting things done for the district."

General election voters were also evenly divided when asked whether Cantor was better described as "sometimes takes positions at odds with his district because he wants to keep his position in the Republican leadership," or was able to "bring more influence and clout to the district because he is a member of the Republican leadership."

This is not to say we believed Cantor was likely to lose in the general election. The district was decidedly Republican (48% Republican, 36% Democratic in party identification). Mitt Romney and George Allen held double-digits leads over Barack Obama and Tim Kaine, respectively. In the Congressional horserace, Cantor ran ahead of both of these Republicans, leading Powell by 22 points.

Powell was almost completely unknown at the time (4% favorable, 2% unfavorable). About half said they would consider voting for Powell after hearing his biography and political views, and he was within five points of Cantor in a follow-up vote question. But even after itemizing a series of arguments against Cantor, Powell could do no more than break even in a final horserace.

With this information, candidate Powell and Mudcat Saunders, his lead consultant, made an impassioned plea for support to the leaders of the Democratic congressional campaign apparatus. They argued that even if defeating Cantor was a long-shot, it was worth an investment to tie Cantor down and reduce the time he had to raise money and campaign for other Republicans.

Alas, it was not to be. Mudcat and Wayne were told that no investment would be made because it was a Republican district, a Presidential election year, and Powell "isn't even ahead after you attack him" in the poll. Call it a self-fulfilling prophecy if you will, but the DCCC was correct in their prediction of Powell's likely fate. Grossly underfunded but with a spirited campaign and clever advertising, Powell received a higher percentage -- by seven percentage points -- than any Democrat challenger had ever received against Cantor. And Powell won more votes than any of the Democratic Congressional challengers in Virginia who did receive targeted resources from the national campaign committee.

Cantor's weakness among Republicans caught our eye at the time. Even in the polarized general election environment of 2012, Republican identifiers were reluctant to support the Majority Leader on key dimensions. Only 65% of Republicans and only 55% of conservatives had favorable opinions of him. Only two-thirds of Republicans wanted to re-elect him.

Bare majorities of his fellow Republicans gave him passing grades on dealing with the federal deficit, controlling government spending, or reforming Congress. On the issue of illegal immigration, his rating among Republican identifiers was 57% positive, 19% negative; only 3% of them listed immigration as their top issue.

As with the general electorate, Cantor's problems with Republicans has less to do with policy matter than a vast distance they sense separating them and their Congressman. Republicans overwhelmingly (57% to 22%) thought he was more interested in national politics than issues facing the district. Less than 50% believed he would do the right thing for the district when it conflicted with the national Republican agenda.

Indeed, after spending six months in the district, Mudcat's prediction on the eve of the 2012 election proved prescient: "Cantor's going to lose; if it's not to Wayne [Powell], it will be in a primary." The seeds of his defeat were obvious even then to anyone willing to look.

Harrison Hickman is President of Hickman Analytics, Inc., in Chevy Chase, MD, and has been a Democratic pollster for 35 years. During that time, Hickman has worked in six Presidential campaigns and campaigns in all 50 states.