This article is the 3rd essay in a 3-part series on the opinion polls and demographic dynamics that give Doug Jones this unprecedented opportunity for a Democrat to win a statewide election in Alabama. You can view the other 2 essays here and here.
Opinion polls conducted in Alabama prior to the 2016 election gave Donald Trump a 20% lead over Hillary Clinton. With Trump ultimately winning the state by a 28% margin, we should consider the possibility that Roy Moore might easily defeat Doug Jones. This would be conventional wisdom, however, based on what we already know about the overwhelming dominance of the Republican Party in Alabama, organizationally and emotionally. Alabama, after all, is one of the most conservative and evangelical states in the United States.
Betting markets give Roy Moore about an 80 percent chance of winning the election. But these were about the odds given Hillary Clinton to defeat Donald Trump nationally in 2016. And we know what happened in that election. Let’s consider an alternative way to visualize the outcome of this election, based on what we know about the “age gap” for voter preferences and attitudes in Alabama. This age gap tells us that voters under the age of 45 are far more likely to support Doug Jones and liberal policies than voters 45 and older.
First, we must assume this election differs in a qualitative sense from other elections on which pundits and prognosticators base their prediction models. How would we know about these qualitative differences? Roy Moore is like no other candidate for Senate in recent memory (although Roy Arpaio now seems determined to join this exclusive wing-nut/numb-nut club). Roy Moore’s escapades and sensibilities parallel those of Donald Trump, with the two apparently destined for BFF status if Moore makes it to Washington, a romance portending melodrama the nation (and perhaps the planet) probably could not survive.
Second, given the stakes, the Alabama Senate election has received an enormous amount of attention from the rest of the United States, and from the rest of the world. Indeed, Alabama has probably not received this much attention since Bull Connor unleashed his dogs and firehoses on the children of Birmingham in 1963. Politics in Alabama has always operated under cover of darkness, with outcomes that depend upon a stacked deck and the indifference of the rest of the nation. As with the events in Birmingham and Selma a half century ago, the Roy Moore debacle undermines Alabama’s historic claims of being essentially “separate” and “unique” in any sense beyond the dubious distinction of being uncommonly brutal and corrupt.
Third, intense national and international focus on the Alabama election almost by definition changes the internal dynamics of the election. Mitch McConnell and Orrin Hatch say the outcome of this election should only matter to the residents of Alabama, which is really saying let politics operate as it normally has in Alabama, through dubious deals and deeds. National interest in this election suggests otherwise, indicating awareness that electing Roy Moore would infect national politics with the most corrosive and toxic elements of Alabama politics.
Fourth, voters in Alabama are clearly uncomfortable with the attention, while simultaneously being aware of the validity of national concerns and of the problems posed by a blind loyalty to poltical party – matter what ugly form it assumes – over state and nation. Younger voters, in particular, especially those with some level of education and with exposure to the rest of the world, and with no direct memory of and experience with the blunt and primitive infrastructure of segregation, are more likely to recoil from the irruption into national politics of a cynical and debased swamp creature like Roy Moore.
Fifth, voters from both the Democratic and Republican parties in Alabama are also aware, pragmatically, that the state can no longer justify using a spurious and bankrupt moral calculus to isolate itself, economically and politically, from the rest of the nation, and from the world. The challenge is not to export Alabama values to the rest of the nation, as Roy Moore would have it, but to import national values into Alabama.
The drama inherent in this election is truly almost without precedent. Opinion polls show such a tight horse race because Alabama citizens do understand the choice between Doug Jones and Roy Moore possesses a transcendent meaning from which they cannot escape as voters. This would be a choice between a past few of them can abide and a future most of them can embrace, with a cascading impact on natonal politics that firmly, and permanently, either integrates the state with the rest of the United States, or separates (disunites) the United States from itself.
There is no guaranteed outcome to this election, of course. But there is also no middle ground. The time for hedging has passed. The path forward that elects Doug Jones requires exceptional turnout by younger voters and the decision of a meaningful slice of Republican voters in the state (mostly older) to vote for Jones (or not to vote at all). That we are having this conversation at all is a sign that Alabama may have already un-Moored itself from the rigid caste assumptions of its past. That faith in the meaning of the uncertain energy in the state itself, about which many have commented, validates the unconventional wisdom stored within the polling data.