The news that challenger David Brat had defeated incumbent Congressman and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor took people by surprise, including David Brat himself. His failure to prepare for the next phase of the campaign has taught a valuable lesson, and reminded observers of the importance of being ready to capitalize on fortuitous events.

I’m fortunate enough to live in the 7th Congressional District of Virginia, so I’m right in the middle of all the coverage of one of the biggest stories in domestic politics right now. One of the big stories has been the silence of David Brat for almost a week (as of the time I write this post) after his win. The nation was focused on him and his district, and it was a great chance for him to introduce himself to potential voters. But still we’ve heard nothing from the Republican nominee.

The recent work in political science argues that even presidents are unable to move public opinion through making speeches, and this has begun to infiltrate media accounts of presidential power as well.* However, what we haven’t been able to examine is the counterfactual to a president speaking. We’ve been missing the proverbial “dog that didn’t bark.” We now have a great example of this, as we see the Republican nominee avoiding media attention after his upset victory. David Brat’s lack of public presence in VA-07 after winning the primary shows us exactly the costs of failing to speak and failing to be prepared. Nowhere is this more evident than on reporter Parker Slaybaugh’s Facebook feed where he posted:

I have tried for 2 days now to speak with Dave Brat after his victory over Eric Cantor and he and his campaign have told me he is not speaking at all publicly until maybe Monday. They say they are bring on more staff to help out. What do you think? Do you think he should have spoken to his constituents and to the media by now? Let me know in the comments below!

 While clearly looks like the Facebook equivalent of a push poll, many of the commenters agreed strongly with the premise of this post. Cantor had been voted out in part because of his failure to connect with the district, so Brat’s initial post-victory silence may have soured voters against him. While media appearances might not have helped his standing in the district, failing to appear certainly seems to be hurting him, at least in the short-term.

This is a great example of where randomized experiments, the type preferred by political scientists and considered the gold standard in the academic literature on campaigns, can’t help us understand politics. No candidate is going to let us randomly decide whether he will be available to the press after the campaign, nor is any president. But we don’t want to let the availability of experiments limit the types of questions we can answer and what we can learn about politics. So we have to look for natural experiments, where a candidate is “assigned” to a treatment condition through factors outside his control. Brat’s unexpected win is a great example of a candidate being caught unprepared and forced to react, and offers us a great chance to learn the costs of a candidate not going public.


Chad Murphy

Fellow – HaystaqDNA

Assistant Professor of Political Science – University of Mary Washington



*For a counterpoint to this line of work, see my work with former student Annie Morris showing that presidents are able to change the behavior of members of Congress.