Don’t blame John McLaughlin for Eric Cantor’s defeat

STEVE FORBES • | JULY 3, 2014 | 6:00 AM

Rep. Eric Cantor‘s loss to largely unknown primary challenger Dave Brat surprised everyone. Brat himself called the win a “miracle.”

Now, on the heels of this headline-grabbing result, Republican strategists are distancing themselves from the Cantor campaign, while simultaneously pointing the finger at their competitors for causing Cantor’s defeat.

There’s nothing wrong with calling out the competition to gain a competitive edge, but in this case the fingers are pointed in the wrong direction; too much blame has been placed on pollster John McLaughlin of McLaughlin & Associates.

In the interest of full disclosure, McLaughlin served as pollster for both of my presidential campaigns, in 1996 and 2000.

I only wish I could have campaigned as well as he did the polling. I always knew where we stood in particular states. John never put lipstick on a pig.

Not surprisingly, John’s competitors are playing politics with his connections to the Cantor campaign. But they are doing a disservice to their profession attempting to gain a leg up by putting John down.

The best pollsters are brutally honest and fully transparent with their clients. John is both. Many of today’s pollsters could learn a thing or two from John.

Honesty and transparency beget not only accuracy, but real insight grounded in hard data. Never once during my presidential campaigns did John ask me to simply take his word for it.

With well-designed questions and insightful analysis, John has a unique ability to pull back the curtain and expose the real political landscape surrounding a campaign.

I knew the exact questions asked and the precise demographic and sample size targeted. John showed me the raw data and explained his take on it. I knew his process was scientific, and his conclusions were sound.

Perhaps more importantly, I knew that John wasn’t “double dipping” and serving the interests of his corporate clients rather than the interests of my campaign.

Many pollsters and campaign consultants today are hired by private interests to conduct polls on particular issues — often with a pre-determined result.

If they use these polls to push key elected officials (who are often their campaign clients) toward particular positions on the issues, that’s extra dollars for the pollsters from their corporate clients.

In other words, backdoor lobbying is the name of the game in much of today’s polling industry, even to the detriment of accuracy.

Transparency could cure many of these ill effects, but too many campaigns don’t insist on transparency.

Because of his careful and transparent methods, the accuracy of McLaughlin’s record over the years meets or exceeds that of any of his competitors.

Indeed, John was the pollster to ultimately identify the cause of Cantor’s surprise defeat. A McLaughlin & Associates poll of Republican primary voters in Cantor’s district, conducted immediately after the election, provided some interesting insight into the Cantor primary results.

Brat earned over 7,000 votes from affiliated Democrats, for example, and beat Cantor overall by 7,219 votes.

And the partisan make-up of voters in the Cantor GOP primary shows why the results took everyone by surprise.

Forty-five percent of total voters in the June 10 race had never voted in a Republican primary before, and 29 percent had actually voted in a Democratic primary.

In other words, Brat (who is a worthy candidate in his own right) owes his surprising margin of victory to Democrats and liberals coming out and voting against Cantor.

No one saw the Cantor defeat coming, especially not by its final margin. But McLaughlin, through his careful methodology and thoughtful analysis, is the first to identify precisely why Cantor lost.

This analysis is important to other Republican officials racing toward November elections. Such transparent and accurate polling simply won’t be available much longer if we buy into the narrative that many of McLaughlin’s competitors are now spinning.

Polling is important to campaigns, to the media, and to the general public. And, as I learned from John McLaughlin, it is most valuable when conducted with integrity and transparency to clients.

Steve Forbes is chairman of Forbes Media, Inc. and editor-in-chief of Forbes Magazine. He ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1996 and 2000.

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