“Do you believe in miracles?! Yes!” Hockey fans may remember those as the breathless words that signaled the US team’s victory over the Soviets in the 1980 Olympics.
They seem equally apt for David Brat, a political unknown who defeated House majority leader Eric Cantor in Tuesday’s Republican primary election. It was a stunning upset and, even more than that, a complete surprise. No pundits were predicting it and no polls were expecting it. Still, sometimes very unlikely results do happen.
To help you catch up, here are 10 surprising facts about the upset:
■ Number of times a House majority leader had previously lost in a primary since the position was created in 1899: 0
■ Amount of money Cantor spent on the campaign: over $1 million
■ Amount of money Cantor’s campaign spent at steakhouses since the beginning of last year: $168,637
■ Amount of money Brat spent in total on the campaign: roughly $200,000
Being outspent 5 to 1 might seem insurmountable, especially for a candidate as little-known as Brat. But remember, this is just direct spending by the campaigns. There are a lot of other ways for candidates to reach audiences, and in this case conservative media outlets and tea party organizations gave Brat abundant support.
■ Cantor’s lead in a poll released days before the election: 13 points
■ Cantor’s lead in his own internal poll conducted in late May: 34 points
■ Brat’s actual margin of victory: 11 points
How could polls be so wrong? Internal polls that get released to the public are often wrong, because they’re doing double-duty as campaign spin. But, in this case, the independent polling was wrong too. One possible reason is that they made bad assumptions about who was likely to vote. In order to predict which candidate will win, you need to know which citizens are going to show up on election day. And if you underestimate the turnout of, say, staunch conservatives, your results will be skewed.
■ Number of times the New York Times mentioned Brat’s name in the last 6 months, before Tuesday (based on their search tool): 1
■ Topic of the most widely-cited academic paper published by Brat (who is an economics professor): Inequality
■ Margin of victory in this district for Mitt Romney in 2012: 15 points
Romney’s good showing tells us this is a strongly Republican district, and it suggests Brat is likely to become the next representative of Virginia’s 7th district. After last night, though, perhaps it’s best to remain cautious about what’s likely and unlikely in elections.