Three take-aways stand out from the election of Doug Jones (D) in Alabama’s special election last week. First, the huge boost in black turnout. Second, the sharp decline in Republican votes in white suburbs. And third, what the result may mean for the 2018 elections.
Jones “had to have a strong black turnout to offset [Roy Moore’s support in] the rural counties… Black turnout was immensely more robust than the rural turnout,” says Natalie Davis, Professor Emerita at Birmingham Southern College. Indeed, African-American voters made up 30% of the electorate on Dec. 12, a higher share than in either 2008 or 2012 when Barack Obama was on the ballot. In addition, in the Black Belt, home to the state’s largest concentration of black voters, Jones won by a bigger margin than Hillary Clinton did last year. The Black Belt is for its rich soil, not the race of most of its residents, but there is a connection: In the ante-bellum South, the large cotton plantations were located in the Black Belt, thus many descendents of slaves still live in these counties.
Jones’ record as the prosecutor in 1977 of the Klansmen who bombed a Birmingham black church in 1963 and killed four little girls made a good talking point for the Jones campaign in the black community. Moreover, not only is President Trump highly unpopular among African Americans, but Roy Moore is also very unpopular. So Jones was a plus for black voters and Republican Moore was a negative twice over.
In addition, the African-American turnout effort was highly organized and included black churches and black political organizations, as well as the use of emails and social media. “In some counties, the [black] turnout was over 70%,” says Davis. “It was unbelievable.”
But Moore was not able to offset the strong black turnout for Jones by a comparable Republican turnout. “If Democrats were energized, too many Republicans either stayed home or voted against Moore,” says Glenn Browder, Emeritus Professor at Jacksonville State University in Alabama. He added, “Roy Moore’s supporters turned out, but the Republicans who were not Roy Moore people did not.”
Indeed, Moore’s vote share increased over his 2012 Supreme Court election in the mostly rural white region in North and Central Alabama, but he lost ground in the white Republican suburbs. But overall, Moore lost 12 counties that Trump won. “The Republican candidate was too flawed,” says Browder.
Marty Connors, former state Republican chairman, noted that while Moore over-performed in a few rural counties, “The GOP underperformed in all suburban areas.” Reviewing the traditionally Republican suburbs as a whole, Connors pointed out that US Sen. Dick Shelby (R) got 80% in these areas and Donald Trump got 73%, but Roy Moore got 56%, a sharp decline.
“Roy Moore was the story of this election. It was not a story of Donald Trump. It was not a story on Mitch McConnell,” says Davis. “I looked at the returns in Mountain Brook, a suburb of Birmingham. Trump beat Clinton anywhere from 20 to 40 points in these precincts. Doug Jones beat Roy Moore from 20 to 40 points, a 60-point swing. And those boxes had exceptional turnout – 78%, 71%, 80%.”
There were other factors, says Davis. “When Shelby came out against Moore, that helped Jones a lot… Joe Trippi did an excellent job. The ads were pitch perfect. His message of finding common ground was just the right message for suburban while voters.” But there was one plus for Moore:
“If Gloria Allred had not been on television, Jones would have won by a larger margin,” opines Davis, “but you can’t measure that.”
Finally, what does this Democratic victory in very Red Alabama portend for the future? “I wouldn’t read too much into this. It’s not the end of the Republican Party in the South,” says Republican Connors. “Doug Jones had a tremendous victory… [but] this was not a sign of Democratic revival. It was not an indicative election for the future,” says Browder. “Another Republican would likely have won. When you talked to people, they just couldn’t stomach Roy Moore,” says Davis.
While it’s unlikely that the Jones victory represents a turning point in Southern or national politics, it is very much part of a trend that has been consistent during the past year. Democrats may have lost several special congressional elections, including one in Georgia and another in South Carolina, but they got much higher shares of the vote in these contests than Trump did. Moreover, the Democratic win in Virginia’s gubernatorial election, while in some ways unique – at least in the South – to that state, showed some important trends for Democrats that are taking place elsewhere, such as the substantial and impressive increase in turnout among women who voted Democratic.
So the 2017 elections indicate that 2018 will look very good for the Democrats. One factor could change that trend: If the tax reform legislation becomes law and produces a clear and immediate boost to the economy, then the GOP may be able to change the subject from President Trump’s erratic personality and persuade voters to focus on economic gains the Trump presidency may be producing. Is that a long shot? Stay tuned.