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June 16, 2014 4:36 PM It’s Why They’re Called “Upsets”

By Ed Kilgore

In the wake of Eric Cantor Week, there is predictably a lot of criticism and self-criticism for the news media’s failure to anticipate or even imagine the upset. That’s perfectly understandable, as is the widely deplored lack of local news outlets focused on non-statewide campaigns.

But there’s also a whiff in the air of Media Know-Nothingism, the idea that national political folk missed the upset because they are addicted to polls and data and all that other fancy pants stuff you get from computers instead of applying the ol’ shoe-leather to VA-07 and sensing the mood of the district. The New York Times media critic David Carr strays in that direction in an account of “Who Lost VA-07” that makes a lot of valid points about an overstretched and under-financed MSM not doing its homework, but then gets a bit mystical:

Jim McConnell kind of saw it coming. As a staff reporter at The Chesterfield Observer, a large weekly that serves the suburbs of Richmond, he wrote several articles in the spring suggesting Mr. Cantor was in for a fight. And on June 4, he suggested that “Brat’s campaign is gathering steam as it hurtles toward the finish line.”
“You could tell wherever you went that Cantor was incredibly unpopular, that people saw him as arrogant,” he said in a phone call on Friday. “Dave Brat gave me his cellphone number when I first met with him, and I pretty much had him to myself….”
He doesn’t want to give himself too much credit.
“I am not Nostradamus — I didn’t see him winning, but I knew it would be closer than anybody thought,” he said. “Any credible journalist would have seen it — all I did was talk to the challenger, listen to what people were saying and get a sense of what was happening on the ground in this campaign.”
Simple blocking and tackling, as old as journalism itself: Mr. McConnell left the newsroom, asked people questions and listened to the answers. And in the process, he saw a puff of smoke that turned into a wildfire, the kind of thing that’s not visible on a computer screen.

You half-expected a reference to the number of yard signs, though truth be told, that, too, is a kind of data, albeit not a very reliable kind. “Asking people questions and listening to answers” generates data, too, though you have to do an awful lot of it to make it a valid documentation for anything other than a hunch.

Though I wish we had a lot more Jim McConnells out there, what we really lacked in VA-07 wasn’t mood-ring-reading but more and better data—yes, the kind that’s visible on computer screens. The main reason a few of us non-local writers did mention the possibility of an upset before voting began was that one bit of independent data had emerged suggesting it: a Daily Caller-sponsored poll showing Cantor’s committed support level coming in at under 50%. That along with Cantor’s well-known troubles at the district party convention in May was enough to alert the alert that something strange might be afoot, even if we weren’t personally trolling the strip malls of exurban Richmond trying to sense the mood of VA-07.

In the end, it seems Jim McConnell was about as surprised by the result as were those of us who wrote that Cantor was “struggling” but still didn’t think he’d lose with a 25-1 or 40-1 (or whatever it wound up being) spending advantage. There’s a reason these sort of election results are called “upsets.” And we need more, not less, data to anticipate them.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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