A friend asked me, a couple of days before this special election, who I thought would win. I said it would be close, but if I had to bet the farm on it, I’d bet on Roy Moore. To my immense relief, I was wrong, and I hadn’t bet the farm.
Doug Jones won by being a man of integrity running against one whose integrity was in question. The late-breaking controversy over allegations of sexual improprieties and possible predation on minor girls was certainly a factor in the outcome, but may not have been decisive. The exit polls show that 21 percent of voters decided only in December: 54 percent of them voted for Moore. Among the 78 percent of voters who decided before December, 53 percent voted for Jones. If anything, the controversy helped Moore, but not enough.
He won by running against a candidate who has consistently, in two State Supreme Court elections and in this election, failed to match the winning margins of other statewide Republican candidates. Moore’s percentage in every single county was below Trump’s margins last November .
Jones won by turning out the voters: the Alabama Department of State reports turnout at 40.46 percent of registered voters, remarkably high for a special election. Most observers were expecting more like 25 percent.
Turnout among African Americans was up: 29 percent of exit poll voters were blacks, as compared with about 25 percent of registered voters. But that’s really within the margin of error of such polls. The real point here is that the Democrats were able to mobilize enough African Americans to match increased white turnout. The African American vote was the foundation of Jones’ victory.
Jones won by converting many suburban voters, especially around Birmingham. In the exit poll, suburban voters went for Moore by only 51 percent, much lower than Trump’s percentage, and not enough to balance the overwhelming African American vote, which came largely from cities and the belt of south-central counties with black majorities.
Educated white voters, while leaning to Moore, were more evenly divided than the less educated. And women were uniformly less pro-Moore than men, regardless of their other demographic characteristics. This repeats a pattern that we saw with Trump’s victory in November.
In the 21st century, when Republican control of the South is almost as solid as the old solidly Democratic South of segregationist days, the Holy Grail for the Democrats has been the sweet spot where a solid African American vote combines with enough of the white vote to win. Doug Jones found that sweet spot, with more than a little help from a polarizing Republican candidate and a blundering president.
Trump, the White House staff, the Senate Republican leadership, Steve Bannon’s alt-right Breitbart network, and the national party just could not get on the same page in this election. The result was the spectacle of Trump initially supporting the appointed incumbent, Luther Strange, at the behest of the Senate leadership, then backing Moore, but seeming to avoid a full-throated commitment. So he didn’t appear with Moore, but said he supported him. He had a big closing rally, but just across the line in Pensacola (the town that Floridians deride as “South Alabama”). He promptly accepted Jones’ victory (even when Moore didn’t), saying that Moore worked hard but the deck was stacked against him.
Just how does that work in one of the most Republican states in the country? Unlike the losses in gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey in November, this was a race that no Republican would expect to lose.
The Republicans lost this election; Doug Jones picked up the pieces.