5 Takeaways from the Alabama Senate Election
Wow, just wow. I’m writing this minutes after seeing Doug Jones win statewide in Alabama and in utter disbelief. The number of things that had to go right for Doug Jones to win was astronomical. He needed heavily increased black vote despite being a white politician, a suppression of Republican votes in a deeply partisan time, and white conservatives to actually vote for a Democrat. The polls were all over the place, showing wild swings, but as a whole started converging the way you’d think: toward the Republican at the end as voters came back home. In fact, they did, exit polling showed late breaking voters voted Republican. There were a million ways Roy Moore could have won this, and only one narrow way Doug Jones could have. Honestly, I didn’t think he’d be able to pull it off.
And yet, against all the odds, he did. Here are some takeaways from the Senate race:
Money Won This Election
Doug Jones raised roughly 10 times more than Roy Moore. As a Democrat I’m used to being outspent on campaigns (it’s hard working for the party of the people), but I’ve never been outspent by numbers like that. Being outspent by anything above 3–1 can feel unrelenting, where you’re constantly running your campaign in response to what your opponent is doing and saying about you and themselves. It kills morale, donations, support, and votes by the end of it. The fact that Doug Jones was able to raise and spend that amount of money is what put him over the edge.
This money was largely spent on T.V. which allowed Doug Jones to blanket the airwaves with great spots that reminded voters about Roy Moore’s predatory behavior. If Roy Moore had even half that he could have reminded conservative voters about Doug Jones’ more liberal positions, tied him to national liberal figures, and gotten Republicans back in their partisan corners. I call that the “partisan pressure release valve” and when you’re running in an area with your party at your helm it’s an easy and extremely effective tactic to pull. That is, unless you don’t have the money to get out from under and unrelenting chorus of sexual assault accusations. It’s not fun or sexy to mention money in something like this, but in this case it was absolutely what put Jones over the top.
Turnout (Also) Won This Election
There will be more data to dig through tomorrow, but for today it looks like the elusive swing voter did not peak their head from the foggy lake they are rumored to exist in and make themselves known, it was once again all about turnout. While turnout across the board was down from presidential years it was higher in African American Democratic areas and HEAVILY depressed in Republican areas.
In that way this election result shouldn’t be all that surprising. It’s been the holy grail for campaigners that if we could just pull out a fraction of our party’s voters from a presidential year to the midterms we would sweep the elections. By all accounts Doug Jones had a great field game, and people were excited to go vote for him. Getting those people out to vote without the excitement of a president at the top of the ticket is hard, but Democrats seem to be there right now, and Republicans aren’t.
Old School Polling Worked
Live phone call polling was far more accurate in this race than either online or robocall polling. Live calls showed Jones up by 2–3 points, compared to online and robocall polling which tended to show Moore up 6–10 points. This is for a number of reasons that Nate Silver reviewed in great detail if you’re interested. As a born and bred cheapskate I’m praying for the day we can tweak polling through automated processes that can rival the accuracy of in person calls. One day we will, but this Alabama race shows that in volatile situations like we had here nothing beats in person calls. In the meantime the days of $15,000 polls continues :-(.
Ideology Didn’t Factor
There’s been a lot of interesting research on how voters interact with ideology, and this election shows how it plays out in the real world. Voters don’t understand, much less vote, on the political ideology of the candidates. When you ask voters about where specific issues stand on a conservative and liberal spectrum, only a small fraction can actually tell you. An old school campaigner would tell you only the most conservative Democrat could win in Alabama. But Doug Jones was not a conservative Democrat, he’s a civil rights lawyer, pro-choice, and pro gay marriage. What he did is focus on what he had in common with Alabamians, and most importantly made the race about Roy Moore and not himself.
Trump Isn’t Helping
Exit polling across the board had Trump almost dead even for approval, 48%-48%. This is in a state he won by 28 points last year. Roy Moore had an easy way to win this election, he needed to nationalize the election and remind voters that they share an important identity together: Republicanism. That’s that pressure valve I was talking about earlier, and it works. The problem was Republicans nationally wanted no part in sharing an identity with a likely sexual predator (for the 2nd time), and kept arms length. Trump (that other sexual predator I alluded to earlier) was happy to come in and support though. This would be a powerful ally, except even in deep red Alabama his approval is sinking, and doesn’t seem to be the draw he once was.
This election is going to be really important. It’s going to fire up donors, potential candidates, and campaign workers, and make incumbent Republicans think long and hard about whether early retirement looks good for them right now. Not to mention it gives Democrats a great shot at winning back the Senate, an important step in blocking any extreme Trump Supreme Court picks.
Okay, it’s 1 am here in Florida and I have meetings across Orlando all day tomorrow, so I’m going to bed. This was a great night, not just for Democrats but for basic moral decency. We should all give ourselves a pat on the back, am I right?