Could Roy Moore actually lose?
It happened quickly. In Alabama, Sen. Richard Shelby, a Republican, switched parties in 1994; Jeff Sessions, now attorney general, won election in 1996. Since, both senators in the state have been Republican, and there was every reason to think that those two senators would continue to be Republicans into the indefinite future.
To be clear, it's still very likely that the man who will win the upcoming special election in Alabama to replace Sessions will be the Republican, Roy Moore. But with revelations reported by The Post that Moore allegedly sought sexual contact with a 14-year-old girl in 1979, it seems worth reevaluating that assumption. Could Doug Jones be the first Democratic senator from Alabama in two decades?
Charles Franklin of the Marquette Law School Poll noted some interesting data on Twitter on Friday. Moore has twice won election to statewide office in Alabama, being elected chief justice of the state Supreme Court in 2000 and 2012. In both cases, he left office after being censured for his behavior: In 2003, he was removed from office after refusing to take a religious statue out of a state building, and in 2016, he was suspended for demanding that the state's ban on same-sex marriages be maintained contrary to a U.S. Supreme Court decision.
What Franklin noted was a sharp downturn in Moore's performance between his two races, suggesting that his having left in disgrace the first time tamped down his support the second time.
In 2000, Moore won about 55 percent of the vote in his race, a bit less than George W. Bush won in the presidential race in Alabama that year. Moore also got fewer votes than Bush, by about 63,000 votes.
In 2012, though, the gap between Mitt Romney and Moore was much wider. Moore got only about 52 percent of the vote, down about 3 points from 2000. Romney, though, outperformed Bush in 2000 by more than 4 points. The margin of Moore's victory in 2000 was 5.5 points worse than Bush's; in 2012, his margin of victory was almost 19 points worse than Romney's. Moore only won by 3.5 points in 2012 and, at the same time, received 343,000 fewer votes than Romney.
Moore's Democratic opponents did better than Al Gore and Barack Obama, both in terms of percentages and raw vote totals. The suggestion is that, perhaps, a national Democrat is perceived less positively than an Alabama Democrat. In 2016, Donald Trump won Alabama by a wider margin than even Romney, 27.7 points. While Democratic Senate candidate Ron Crumpton, taking on Shelby, lost by a wide margin, even though he got more votes than Hillary Clinton in the state. (He got 749,000; she got 730,000.)
There are two ways to interpret this.
One is that Moore is more vulnerable than one might have originally thought, particularly given:
- The newly reported revelations, which led, among other things, to endorsements being reconsidered and party funding shut off.
- The results of Tuesday's elections, in which the Democratic candidate for governor in Virginia (a state Clinton won) ended up seeing a groundswell of Democratic support that helped him significantly overperform polling in the race.
A poll conducted in the wake of the new reports shows the race as essentially even — though there are good reasons to be skeptical of what it found. Moore's lead in the polling average has been about 6 points, narrower than the lead he enjoyed in the runoff for his party's nomination.
The other way to look at this is that the fundamental structure of the race hasn't changed. This is an election in December of an off-year, the sort of election that tends to reward the candidate supported by voters who turn out more often, which generally means voters who are older and wealthier - which generally means Republican voters. That's the caveat to the comparisons to 2000 and 2012 that Franklin himself notes: A Democrat coming within 4 points of a Republican in statewide race in a high-turnout presidential election doesn't mean another Democrat would come similarly close in December 2017.
There will likely be Republican voters who are discouraged from heading to the polls by the idea of having to cast a ballot for either a scandal-clouded Republican or, worse, a Democrat. But how many are so discouraged is hard to say. It's also hard to say how many Democrats were planning on flooding the polls next month as they did in Virginia. As a percentage of the state's population, there just aren't as many Democrats in Alabama to do that flooding.
Were the Alabama Senate contest between Jones and any other Republican, it would be very hard to make the case that Jones might win. (Such a case would lean heavily on the second bullet point above.) A race against Moore, though?
Let's just say that it's not a gimme for the Republicans. This may be about as close to a non-solidly-red Deep South as we're likely to see for a while.
Philip Bump is a correspondent for The Post based in New York City.
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