Last night, GOP's chief political arsonist House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his own primary in his home district by double digit margins. Everyone agrees that it was a political earthquake the likes of which are essentially without parallel. This upset is most often being hailed as a Tea Party victory, and there is little doubt that it is that. But the most important lesson for Democrats and progressives should be something different: throw away all the polls and get out the vote.
The much-mocked internal poll conducted last month and released last week by Eric Cantor's campaign that showed their candidate up by 34 points, and even right wing pollsters showed Eric Cantor up by 11 points at the same time. The pendulums swung between 22 and 45 points last night to give Cantor's xenophobic Tea Party opponent a margin of victory of over 10 points.
How did the pollsters get it so wrong? The aforementioned polls weren't the only ones predicting an easy Cantor victory, after all. As NPR puts it in their post-election analysis, a preponderance of polls pointed to the same thing.
Before we discuss how they got it so wrong, let's discuss precisely what they got wrong. Eric Cantor's own pollster John McLaughlin - the one who will now live in twitter infamy for his 34-point poll - points to two factors: they severely underestimated turnout, and, here is where your progressive ears should pucker up, Democrats conducted an effective Operation Chaos.
But why should we trust the analysis of a pollster who got the numbers so drastically wrong? Good question. A look inside his poll and juxtaposing it against last night's results reveals why. McLaughlin's internal survey showed Cantor getting 62% of the primary vote, but it was based on the wrong turnout numbers, he admits.
"Primary turnout was 45,000 2 years ago," McLaughlin wrote. "This time 65,000. This was an almost 50% increase in turnout."
For a moment, assume that turnout was roughly 45,000 and Eric Cantor got the votes he did, roughly 28,000 (official results here). 28,000 out of 45,000 is almost exactly 62%. If McLaughlin had been correct about turnout, his poll would have proven on the money. It's those additional 20,000 voters that screwed up his math, but his estimate of the total number of votes Cantor would get is deadly accurate.
McLaughlin credits Brat's super anti-immigrant stand with some of his margin, but the rest, according to McLaughlin go to Democrats who decided to take advantage of Virginia's primary system where there are no party registrations and voters can choose any party's ballot on primary day. McLaughlin even credits Democrats with the lion's share of the increase in turnout.
Then McLaughlin cited the "Cooter" factor – the fact that former Rep. Ben Jones, a Georgia Democrat who played Cooter in The Dukes of Hazzard, had written an open letter urging Democrats to vote for Brat to help beat Cantor.
"Over the weekend Democrats like Ben Jones and liberal media were driving their Democratic voters on the internet into the open primary," McLaughlin wrote. "Eric got hit from right and left. In our polls two weeks out Eric was stronger with Republicans at 70% of the vote, but running under 50% among non Republicans."
"Untold story," McLaughlin continued, "is who were the new primary voters? They were probably not Republicans."
Given McLaughlin's accuracy in predicting the actual vote total for Cantor (as cited above), we would be wise to take this last claim as something more than just sour grapes. Eric Cantor more than likely did win favors with right wing Republicans by being the catalyst in the House for a government shutdown, as well as blocking everything Obama. It is hard to imagine it was Tea Party rage alone that threw him out of office. The Democratic spoiler movement had to have played at least a significant part, if not a decisive one, in Cantor's ouster.
So what? Are Democrats going to fare better with a more wingbat candidate who is now the favorite to win a heavily Republican district?
The Democrat in the race, Jack Trammell, certainly has a better chance against Brat than he would against Cantor in the general election. It is by all means a pickup opportunity, with the Right's efforts being further complicated by a Libertarian candidate. But that really isn't the reason Democrats should rejoice. That reason is this:
To the extent that this Democratic Operation Chaos is responsible for Canto's defeat, it shows that Democrats are not only far more energized but also far better organized than the national media gives us credit for.
That is the reason you should forget everything you have heard about national polls. That is the reason you should forget everything you have heard about how weak Democratic enthusiasm is in 2014. If pollsters can get a district's numbers so devastatingly wrong, why would we trust them about Democratic enthusiasm and Democratic organization?
The answer is that we shouldn't. In more cases than not, these polls are designed to be a self-fulfilling prophecy - they say Democrats won't turn out and Republicans win, leading to Democrats being demoralized and not turning out, leading to them claiming they were right all along - than a true barometer of the country. Virginia's 7th may only be a microcosm, but it shows that with motivation and organization, Democrats are not as helpless in November as the media wants to claim.
Throw away the polls. Forget the "enthusiasm gap". Get involved. Organize. Volunteer. Vote. Help your neighbor vote. Take your outrage against the media turning everything our president does into a political football - whether it be arranging the release of an American prisoner of war or the boldest action on climate change yet - and turn it into the positive force of organizing.
Because at the end of the day, success is the best revenge.