National Republicans are warning candidates to stay away from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's (R-Va.) pollster, who predicted just weeks before Cantor's loss that he was up by a huge margin.
Veteran GOP pollster John McLaughlin has a recent history of missing the mark by a wide margin in his top races. Now, it seems some Republicans have had enough.
“It's safe to say the candidates that currently have him on staff are going to be asking a lot of questions going forward,” said one national Republican strategist.
“Campaigns are going to make their own decisions. People will look and see and if John can make a case to the campaigns about why he got Virginia so wrong and can still get their race right,” said another.
McLaughlin's client list seems to have shrunk after a rough 2012 season, but he continues to work on some campaigns. Current candidates include Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), who's running for Georgia's open Senate seat; Virginia state Del. Barbara Comstock (R), a top-tier candidate in a highly targeted House race; New York state Sen. Lee Zeldin (R), who's running against Rep. Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.); and Rep. David Jolly (R-Fla.), who won a March special election and is uncontested this fall.
Two weeks before the majority leader’s stunning 11-point loss on Tuesday McLaughlin’s poll showed Cantor with a 34-point lead over professor Dave Brat (R). That cushy margin caused Cantor’s team to treat the race much less seriously — and likely was a major factor in the shock of both Cantor’s staff and national observers.
It’s not the first time McLaughlin has missed. In 2012, his polls found GOP Senate candidates Linda McMahon of Connecticut and Tom Smith of Pennsylvania statistically tied just weeks before they both lost by double digits. A poll for former Sen. George Allen’s (R-Va.) campaign weeks before Election Day had him up 47 percent-44 percent against now-Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Mitt Romney leading in Virginia by 7 points. Romney lost by 4 points, and Allen lost by 6.
He also had Rep. Bob Dold (R-Ill.) up double digits weeks before he narrowly lost his reelection bid, Massachusetts’s Richard Tisei (R) leading Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.) by 17 points less than a month before he lost, and a neck-and-neck race against Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) less than a month before she won with 68 percent of the vote in the heavily Democratic Queens district.
Nearly a dozen Republican strategists who’ve worked with McLaughlin over the years say they try to steer their clients elsewhere and increasingly don’t trust his polling.
No Republicans wanted to go on-record to criticize McLaughlin and add insult to injury. But many who've worked with him, including some who called him a friend, say they weren't surprised his polling for Cantor was off, though they marveled at how wrong it was. His 2012 track record was perhaps the worst of any major pollster in a year where many in the GOP missed the mark.
“I don't understand how he wasn't run out of the business years ago,” said one GOP strategist who’s overlapped on a few races with McLaughlin. “Every pollster once in their career has gotten something wildly wrong. But this [Cantor poll] was really wild, and he very consistently gets it wildly wrong.”
Others say his work — especially in Virginia — used to be excellent but has gotten worse over the years.
“I don't work with John a whole lot anymore. I used to,” said one. “Is it fair to say that his modeling has been off? Yeah. It certainly was in '12. I wouldn't use him. I have significant concerns.”
That source and others said some of the internal McLaughlin polls he’d seen in recent years had been spot-on — his numbers for now-Rep. Richard Hanna’s (R-N.Y.) campaign were mentioned, as were his fairly accurate surveys for Jolly and spot-on numbers for Comstock’s unpredictable “firehouse” primary. But their worry is that it’s the badly wrong numbers that can kill a campaign, like they did for Cantor — and that even when he's right, the numbers can't be trusted to make decisions on or help set the public narrative on a race.
Already, McLaughlin's trustworthiness is being brought up by his clients' opponents.
"House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost in the Virginia Republican Primary last night by 10 points. Interestingly, Cantor uses the same pollster as Georgia Congressman Jack Kingston," a spokesman for businessman David Perdue (R), Kingston's opponent, said in a release after Cantor's loss. "Now Kingston is hyping new internal numbers by his trusted pollster showing himself up by a substantial margin in the runoff. Hopefully, the congressman believes his internals."
McLaughlin argued that many of his 2012 polls didn’t match the election results because they came shortly after Mitt Romney’s strong debate performance and at the height of Romney’s numbers, which then deflated over the coming weeks. He says he still believes they were accurate at the time.
“They were all tied to the top of the ticket, and when the top of the ticket fell short, we fell short,” he said.
On the Cantor poll, McLaughlin blames Democrats crossing over to vote in the primary, claiming as many as 15,000 came into the race that he didn’t anticipate.
He also said Hurricane Sandy threw East Coast races into tumult and skewed turnout and results in races like Meng's and McMahon's.
“Where the voter surge was, it was Democrats who united against Cantor, who don't like him. And the mistake for our campaign above the others, we should have polled Democratic primary voters and see if they were going to come into the Republican primary,” he said, pointing to a visit by Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) into the district to attack Cantor and a letter to the editor from former Rep. Ben Jones (D-Ga.), best known as “Cooter” from Dukes of Hazzard and who ran against Cantor in 2002, encouraging Democrats to cross over in the race.
Cantor campaign manager Ray Allen echoed that analysis, and called McLaughlin "one of the absolute best in the business." The two are also working together on Comstock's campaign.
A number of analysts find that explanation lacking.
“It sounds like a political answer, not a serious analytical guide into what actually happened,” George Mason University professor Michael McDonald, a voting data expert who crunched the precinct-level numbers in the district, tells The Hill. “McLaughlin's reputation is on the line, and his performance has not been good in recent elections. … To somehow claim Democrats are somehow responsible for the miss on the poll, maybe it accounts for a couple of percentage points, but it's a drop in the bucket with what was really going on.”
McLaughlin said the NRCC continues to work with his firm — though the polling for the NRCC’s independent expenditure arm is being conducted by his brother Jim, who Republicans privately say they have more faith in.
But John McLaughlin still has his defenders.
“Our internal numbers were dead on in the face of public polls which as close as the day before the primary showed us in third place,” Kingston campaign manager Chris Crawford (R) said via email.
“I've worked with John on projects all over the country and gotten dead-on numbers,” said Florida Republican strategist Rick Wilson. “Every consultant has a bad day, and this was John's, but he's a guy who has run hundreds, maybe thousands of surveys that have delivered timely, accurate numbers and excellent insights.”
John Jordan, who funded a GOP super-PAC Wilson worked on to back businessman Gabriel Gomez (R) against now-Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), said that McLaughlin’s internal tracking polls had been spot-on in that race and helped save him millions by convincing him to pull the plug days before the special election and not throw good money after bad.
When asked if he’d hire McLaughlin again, he hesitated a beat.
“I might use him again — I don't see why I wouldn't. In the Gomez race, he called it accurately, and that's my one experience with him in the race,” he said. “He's a good off-the-wall thinker. ... It depends on the race.”
But Jordan seems to be in the minority these days.
“I've had clients who said they were considering him. I've recommended pretty aggressively that they not use him,” said another Republican strategist.