Commentary: The power of 3,607 voters
That’s how many people it took to bring down House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, doom immigration reform and leave all but the most tea-sodden Republicans quaking.
No, it wasn’t the Democrats who did it. Various complicated analyses of voting patterns confirm what anyone who has ever tried to convince even their own mother to vote “strategically” knows: Voters don’t work that way. They may cast their vote to send a message — that happens all the time — but not to execute a strategy that depends on their voting for someone they don’t like at all so that someone else they don’t like at all won’t win.
And it wasn’t “low” turnout that did Cantor in, at least compared to normal turnout. No, more people voted in the Republican primary in 2014 than in 2012 — almost 20,000 more. So in 2014, you had just over 65,000 people who voted — and 7,212 more of them voted for a little-known professor over a well-known politician. If half of those people plus one had gone the other way — 3,607 in all — Cantor would have gotten a scare. Another thousand, and no one would be paying attention.
And then there’s this: More than 86 percent of the people who were eligible to vote in the primary didn’t.
So what you have are a few thousand folks who were clearly angry with their longtime congressman. They obviously weren’t thinking about the fact that you’re a lot better off, practically speaking, being represented by one of the most powerful people in the House than by a freshman. Nor were they crediting Cantor for all the times he has carried the tea party’s water, as it were, playing chicken with the national economy and threatening to take the country over the fiscal cliff. They didn’t give him credit for personally blocking a vote to allow those who serve this country in the military to be eligible for papers. Have I mentioned that Cantor is not a moderate?
This is what has Washington insiders quaking. If this could happen to Cantor, will anyone dare stand up to the tea party?
In fact, this is the first big tea party win of the season. Up until now, the Romney/Bush-backed candidates had been doing just fine, and the establishment was almost beginning to breathe a sigh of relief. But Cantor is (was) a big deal, and that’s why the chances of the current House ever voting on any version of immigration reform just collapsed.
Explain that to one of those kids who was brought to this country as a child, grew up here and didn’t even know they were “different” from their sisters or brothers who were born here until it came time to apply to college.
How dare Cantor even suggest — because that’s all he really did — that we should be able to come up with some way to offer these young people a path to citizenship?
But I don’t blame the tea party for killing immigration reform. They voted — all 36,110 of them — which gave David Brat his 7,212-vote edge. But if 7,213 more people had voted... Or if more than 3,606 of those who did had changed their minds...
It’s trite to say one vote makes a difference or every vote counts, because this election wasn’t even close. But it was tiny, because most of the people who could have voted and might have changed its outcome didn’t bother. You can’t blame the people who play politics for winning. But in general elections, the numbers tend to play differently, and as the number of Hispanic voters keeps growing, it’s likely that the views of a few thousand voters in Virginia could cost Republicans many, many times that number of votes nationally.
Susan Estrich’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.