Was Immigration Important in Eric Cantor’s Loss? Yes and No

Was immigration the biggest factor in Eric Cantor’s loss? Much of the post mortem analysis of the primary election in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District has focused on immigration as the issue that allowed political neophyte Dave Brat to beat the House Majority Leader. But was it really the most important issue in the race? Actually, no, it was not.

Multiple polls have found that immigration was not what defeated Eric Cantor. A poll conducted by PPP explicitly stated as much:

Cantor didn’t lose because of immigration. He lost because of the deep unpopularity of both himself personally and of the Republican House leadership. Even in his conservative district voters still want immigration reform passed, and they want it this year.

As their poll shows, immigration reform is broadly popular among voters in VA-07, commanding the support of 72% of them, while only 23% oppose it. Cantor, on the other hand, is deep underwater in the polling, carrying an approval rating of only 30% in the district. PPP also makes the case that Eric Cantor’s lack of action on the issue might have worked against him.

A poll commissioned by the pro-reform group Americans for a Conservative Direction found similar results. As they note (emphasis mine):

Immigration was not a major factor in Rep. Cantor’s defeat. Among those who voted for David Brat, 22% cite immigration as the main reason for their vote, while 77% cite other factors. Chief among those other factors cited by Brat voters were the idea that Cantor “was too focused on national politics instead of local needs,” and that Cantor had “lost touch with voters.”

The two biggest policies of the Obama administration, per this poll, that drove voters to the polls? The explosion of the national debt and Obamacare, cited as the most important reasons by 33% and 28%, respectively.

So, why did I add “Yes and no” onto the end of the title instead of just “no”? As with all polls like these, it’s important to cross-reference them with national ones. Immigration commanded the attention of far more people in VA-07 than it does nationally. In Gallup’s issue tracking polls, for example, immigration as cited as America’s most important problem by a mere 3%, as of a their latest poll, conducted May 8-11, 2014. That’s a far smaller number than the 22% Americans for a Conservative Direction.

So, yes, relative to national sentiment, immigration was important in the VA-07 Republican primary, but it was certainly not the driving issue behind Eric Cantor’s loss. The biggest portion of blame can be laid at the unpopularity of the GOP as a party and, in particular the leadership, among Republican voters. Additionally, as Speaker Tip O’Neill was famous for noting, “All politics is local.” From looking at these polls, it appears Cantor lost sight of the fact that it was the voters of Virginia’s 7th Congressional District who put him in power, not John Boehner or any other Republicans in the House.

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