Cantor and the hard lesson about GOTV

Greg Nash

I, like most political watchers, was caught off-guard by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's (R-Va.) stunning primary defeat to Dave Brat this week. Whether you were paying attention to the polls which suggested that Cantor would win, looked at Brat's paltry fundraising and assumed Cantor had this race in the bag, or assumed that incumbency advantage would keep Cantor in his position, most people thought that a Cantor victory was a foregone conclusion.

So why did he lose? In the hours since the primary election, pundits appear to have settled on a narrative. Cantor was more concerned about currying favor to advance in the Republican leadership than he was in cultivating favor with voters in his district. Cantor's preemptive attack ads against Brat backfired and actually helped to build his opponent's name recognition. On Tuesday, he should have been campaigning at a Starbucks in Richmond instead of Washington. I think all of these factors contributed to Cantor's loss. Collectively, though, they point to a larger potential explanation: Brat, despite his meager resources, may have had a better field operation.

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Get out the vote (GOTV) efforts can win or lose elections. Political scientists have now collected more than 15 years of experimental data which confirm the efficacy of personal campaign outreach. While door-to-door canvassing is still the gold standard of voter contact, more distant forms of contact (such as live phone calls) can also drive up turnout. A candidate can have sterling credentials, perfect policy proposals and tremendous personal presence; but if they don't actually ask for the people's vote, the people might not show up on Election Day.

It will take weeks to fully deconstruct the reasons for Cantor's loss. The findings, however, suggest that we focus on a few aspects of campaigning. What were each candidate's field strategies? How many campaign workers were making phone calls and knocking on doors in the weeks leading up to the primary? On Election Day, were the campaigns deploying workers to remind voters to vote? Were they just handing out literature at polls, or were they in the field, rousing people from their doorsteps? I suspect that as we dig deeper, we are going to find that Brat had a more extensive campaign volunteer network, which significantly contributed to his victory.

I cannot emphasize how important field operations are to understanding this story. Brat could not afford to be on television. And yes, while Cantor probably did Brat a favor by making him a household name with the "liberal professor" ads, someone had to be out there dispelling that rumor. The logical explanation is that Brat and his team were making the case, door-to-door, phone call by phone call.

There's also one more basic thing to consider here. In Virginia, parties have the option of nominating candidates by primary or convention. And as someone who grew up in the Commonwealth and still spends a lot of time at home, I can attest to the fact that the parties still often resort to nominating by convention. As such, Virginia voters may not be fully indoctrinated into a culture of understanding that June is primary season. This means that GOTV efforts become that much more important. Perhaps the pollsters were right, and a majority of the intended primary voters did mean to vote for Eric Cantor (despite all of the grumblings that we now hear about his neglecting the district). These intended Cantor voters may not have known the primary date, though, because the Cantor campaign did not do a good enough job reminding them when to vote.

Sometimes, we get so caught up in the horse race and the glitzy ads that we forget the basics: Campaigns have to get their voters to the polls. At this point, we don't know what Cantor's future political plans are. No doubt, though, that if he plans on running for office again, he'll likely pay more attention to GOTV.

Gillespie is associate professor of political science at Emory University and the author of The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark, and Post-Racial America. Though she now lives in Atlanta, she calls Henrico County, Va. home.