Kirk Kovach | University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Before delving too deeply into this, it is worth acknowledging the obvious: Alabama is not a blue state, nor even a purple one.
But, that does not change the results of the special election. Doug Jones carried a state that had not elected a Democratic senator since 1992, who, by the way, switched parties two years later and remains their senior delegate to D.C., Richard Shelby.
Partisans will spin, as partisans are wont to do, but they are not wrong in saying that this is more about Roy Moore losing the race than Doug Jones winning it. That should not minimize the Jones campaign and their efforts, because they did absolutely everything right. It is a bit early to truly delve into the numbers, as the race has yet to be certified by Alabama’s Secretary of State. Macro events, though, will remain true even after they crunch the numbers. A few of those warrant mention.
Bad Candidates Lose Elections
Any living person in the state with an (R) beside their name could have won this election, except for Roy Moore. Of course, the allegations against the former judge shocked everyone, whether they believed them or not. The media brouhaha around this story must have weighed somewhat in the conscience of voters. Per the results available now, it looks like write-in votes approximately matched the Jones margin of victory (around 20,000). Senator Shelby himself wrote-in a vote, and said so the Sunday before the election on national television.
The problem for the GOP is not that Moore lost, but that he was the candidate in the first place. Luther Strange would have waltzed back into D.C. with a hero’s welcome from congressional Republicans. Unfortunately, for them at least, the Bannon acolytes are hellbent on running Moore-esque candidates across the country to primary incumbent, “establishment Republicans.” I have lamented this trend, of bucking the establishment for populist candidates. It is a recipe for disaster, trying to shepherd forces that no one can truly shepherd.
Nevertheless, they persisted. Moore upset the “incumbent” Luther Strange in the Republican primary, much to the chagrin of the elites. Is it because they did not like him or because he might lose the seat? Equal parts both, I would wager.
But to the point about Moore being a bad candidate, he should not have been on the ballot in the first place. Objectively, if you care about constitutional officers discharging their duties, he should have been unacceptable. I can hardly add to the chorus of voices describing how many ways Moore should have been a nonstarter for the Senate, and conservative writer John Podhoretz documents this well in his piece on the election.
But where a bad candidate tanked, a great one soared. Doug Jones made efforts to cater his message to Alabamians, and even under the flurry of accusations against Moore, he honed in on topics that he regarded as important, like CHIP funding and equitable tax reform.
Jones had virtually no path to victory in the state, yet somehow walked the tightrope and eked one out.
It’s Gonna Come Down to Turnout
Tried and true, this phrase colors election-night Twitter as the politically minded refresh every ten seconds to see what new county numbers are in. The phrase is a nod to those in-the-know that, regardless of any polls, the only real numbers that matter are who votes on election day.
For Roy Moore, these numbers were worrying from the get-go and never really improved. Most people would have been more optimistic about Doug Jones’ chances by the time 50% of precincts reported, but I suppose shellshock from a Democrat winning Alabama in 2017 prevented that.
Another fact that gets buried behind the stories about Moore is that he has always underperformed as a Republican. His historic numbers are here if you really want to dig into them, but the upshot is that, in elections where Republicans topped 60% of the vote, Moore hovered around 50%. That number is even more impressive when you consider that you can vote a straight ticket in Alabama. That means voters took the extra time to vote for, say, Romney, but then abstained or voted against Moore when he ran for Alabama Supreme Court. The guy just never had strong support in the state, notwithstanding party affiliation.
From the onset, then, Moore was probably going to run at least 10 points behind a generic Republican. Per available data, he captured a little over 48% of the vote, where Trump ran away with over 62% just a year ago. The difference in these elections was turnout, and for that, Jones has an energized African-American electorate to thank.
The Black Belt Carries Jones
In the South, the Black Belt originally referred not to the inhabitants of the region, but to the dark topsoil. The phrase took on a new meaning, though, as a nod to the large concentration of African-Americans who have lived there historically. That residence began unwillingly, however, as the soil proved fertile ground for cotton and therefore slavery.
Aside from an expected Democratic turnout for Jones in the cities, primarily Birmingham, Mobile and Montgomery, the former federal prosecutor excelled as the African-American community turned out in droves. Again, these numbers are still likely to adjust somewhat but the proportions should stay relatively static. That said, the exit poll data is staggering. Jones collected African-American support at the same level as Barack Obama.
To write these numbers out is cumbersome, and the above link shows intuitive graphs that are far easier on the eyes. Salient trends are worth repeating here, though. Black men and women combined accounted for just under 30% of the electorate, and 98% of black women went for Jones.
These numbers demonstrate an excited electorate and phenomenal turnout, especially for a December special election. At first glance, this seems like a strong reaction to the Trump presidency. He only has about 48% approval in the state, via these exit polls.
I would go further and say that this also represents a bit of poetic justice. Jones, in his victory speech, quoted Martin Luther King, Jr., saying that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The African-American voters in Alabama, many of them descendants of slaves, were given the opportunity to elect a man who prosecuted members of the Ku Klux Klan that perpetrated the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing. They took that opportunity and sent him to the United States Senate.
Regardless of whether you liked Jones or not, the profound message that sends should not be lost in the scandal which mired his opponent. A good and decent man will represent his state in D.C. Had the election gone the other way, the same could not be said.