Primary Schooled

I’m sorry, but I still don’t care about Eric Cantor.

I know I’m supposed to. I know that the House majority leader’s defeat in a primary election is a politically seismic event—something, in fact, that had not happened in the 115 years that the position of “House majority leader” has existed. I know that it supposedly demonstrates the continued pull of the Tea Party in American public life. And I know that, as a consequence, this alters the entire narrative of the 2014 midterms.

All three of these assertions may be true, and Cantor’s loss may well come to embody the final death twitches of the Republican Party establishment. In the fullness of time, we might be able to quantify these assumptions in one direction or another.

Until that happens, however, I reserve the right to remain agnostic and slightly indifferent about what the electoral demise of Eric Cantor portends for the future of the republic, and I recommend the same for everyone else.

I say this not merely out of annoyance and exhaustion with the political-media-industrial complex—although I most certainly do. I would be very happy, indeed, if all TV and Internet coverage of the 2014 races were to be unceremoniously sucked into a black hole until, say, the day before the polls open in November.

As well, it is possible that I have become so conditioned to expect our political system to descend ever-further into lunacy and chaos that whenever it happens, I simply forget to be surprised.

Whatever the secondary considerations, my skepticism toward the significance of the anti-Cantor vote is finally reducible to one figure: 14 percent. That was the number of eligible voters in Virginia’s 7th congressional district who actually turned out last Tuesday. (Virginia allows registrants of any party to vote in primaries.) So when we speak of the people who tossed out a House majority leader in a primary for the first time in history, we are talking about one-seventh of those who had the opportunity to register an opinion. In other words: Practically no one.

By no means is this to suggest the election was illegitimate or anomalous. To the contrary, just about every non-presidential election year features pathetic turnout in every pocket of the country—doubly so in party primaries—meaning that all such showdowns are subject to small sample sizes and are therefore poor (or at least unreliable) representations of what the broader American public actually thinks.

As such, primary votes, like off-year elections in general, are largely determined by the political factions with the most passion, rather than the most people. The continued success of the Tea Party, such as it is, comes not from its size, per se, but from the fact that its members make a concerted effort to actually get off the couch and vote, particularly in elections (such as Cantor’s) in which hardly anyone else bothers to do so.

That, in so many words, is my point. Statistically speaking, House primary votes are inherently volatile. They are liable to change on a dime for seemingly no reason at all and can be rationalized in any number of ways, most of them laughably wrongheaded.

As such, it is foolhardy to draw any grand, nation-spanning conclusions from the results of any one race. Heck, if last week’s opinion polls in Virginia are any indication (Cantor had been miles ahead in all of them), you’d be pushing your luck trying to derive any such meaning about the district in which the vote occurred. Sometimes, there is less than meets the eye.

In this case, all we know for sure is that 55 percent of one-seventh of the eligible voters in Virginia’s 7th district decided that the man representing them in Congress did not deserve another term. We are free to infer any of a million theories as to why this occurred and what it means, but everything must begin with the basic fact that this big story was created by an incredibly small pool of citizens, thereby increasing the possibility that there is no story at all.

And if we absolutely insist on buggering on about this “historic” result, let us reflect on how pitiful it makes us voters look.

After all, in a Congress with an approval rating of 16 percent and in which only 7 percent of Americans profess a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence, why should it come as a shock when any incumbent, no matter how high-ranking, finds himself suddenly out of a job? Shouldn’t this be the rule, rather than the exception?

While it is historically true that being a sitting congressperson carries an enormously high level of job security from one election to the next—a fact that, by rights, shouldn’t make any sense at all—perhaps the final lesson in the fall of Eric Cantor is that this tendency is finally starting to change, and that our elected representatives can no longer take their posts and their constituents for granted.

It’s a long shot, perhaps. But then again, so was David Brat.


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