Sweet Jones Alabama?

by Jackie_South on December 10, 2017

This Tuesday sees the state of Alabama go to the polls to elect a new senator. But can Democrat Doug Jones really have  a chance in this deeply Republican state?

The accession of Jeff Sessions – Alabama’s former senator who Donald Trump picked as his Attorney General – created a need for an election that ought to have been very straight forward for the Republicans to hold. Earlier this month, FiveThirtyEight showed that Alabama is one of the six strongest Republican states.

In fact, the only way the Republicans could possibly blow the election would be to have a historically unpopular president, a party which was nationally unpopular, and a candidate who was both extreme and accused during the campaign of being a paedophile.

Perhaps the Republicans are on some sort of dare, as that is precisely where we now are in the Alabama senate race. And yet, their candidate is still the favourite to win.

A bit of electoral history…

Alabama wasn’t always such a Republican safe bet. Whilst Alabama’s politics were always very conservative, the Democrats used to be able to win elections there. The graph below shows the presidential voting in the state over the last 40 years. In that time, the state has only voted for a Democratic president once (Jimmy Carter from neighbouring Georgia in 1976) but it is clear that the gulf between the parties has got wider and wider as years progress. Trump’s margin over Hilary Clinton was a record 28%.

The Democrats have won other state-wide elections there. Democrats won every election for governor from the end of reconstruction until 1986, and held the position as recently as 2002. The last lieutenant governor of the state left office in 2011.

The Democratic record for senate is not quite as good, but as the graph below shows, the Democrats on the whole did better than the Republicans until the 1994 ‘Gingrich revolution‘. Until that point, only one Republican had ever won a senate race – and they needed a war hero to do it, former Hanoi Hilton prisoner Jeremiah Denton in 1980. But since 1994, and former Democratic senator Richard Shelby’s defection to them, the gap has opened up to one of a similar scale to the presidential results. The Democrats didn’t even field a candidate against Jeff Sessions in 2014.

(note: solid line links elections 2 years apart – Alabama elects senators for six years, on a cycle for one that last fell in 2014 and the other in 2016 – there will be no Senate election here in 2018. Dotted lines link elections further apart to show trends. The victorious senator’s name is shown in their party colours)

The politics of the Yellowhammer State

Alabama is home to 4.9m people: almost as many as Scotland, but in an area almost twice the size. This seems very rural, although three-quarters of the state’s population live in its dozen metropolitan statistical areas.

A quarter live in the area surrounding the largest city,  Birmingham, with its steel-making, finance industry and hospitals. The second-largest city is the state capital, Montgomery, but the second-largest urban area is focused around the high tech city of Huntsville in the north, on the Tennessee River (Huntsville is where both NASA and the defence industry build their rockets. George East and I also once got very drunk there). The port city of Mobile (where Donald Trump held his first rally on his route to the Republican candidature) is the fourth large population centre in the state.

Politically, the other key feature that needs identifying is the ‘Black Belt’ – a crescent running west to east from south of Tuscaloosa through Selma and Montgomery to Phenix City on the Georgia border. Originally, this term reflected the colour of the soil of this low-lying region but with its use for cotton-growing and the resultant pattern of slavery, it quickly came to reflect the demographics of the area. The Black Belt is still predominantly African American in a state that is 68% white, 26% black over all.

This geography plays out in elections. The map below shows how each county voted in the 2016 presidential election: the darker the blue or red, the larger the percentage win for Clinton or Trump respectively.

Whilst Trump’s victory was larger than previous Republicans, the pattern of support has been fairly consistent. The Democrats perform strongly in the Black Belt – the band of blue counties passing through Montgomery. They also win the most populous county, Jefferson, but Clinton only did so by 7%. Whilst Birmingham itself is good for the Democrats, outlying suburbs are better for the Republicans, a trend that is clear in the GOP’s standing in the suburban counties surrounding Jefferson County. Trump’s lead in Blount County to the northwest of Birmingham was a staggering 81%.

Those Democratic areas are the ones that many of us most associate with Alabama, because of the Civil Rights era events in Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma. But these were always only a small part of the state and Trump won everywhere else. The Republicans perform most strongly in the area stretching north from Birmingham to the Tennessee River, and in the southeastern “Lower Alabama” counties around Dothan.

Whilst Birmingham and Montgomery vote Democratic, the other urban areas do not, although they are better for the Democrats than more rural and suburban counties. Trump had a 13% lead in Mobile County (which includes the city of Mobile) and a 16% lead in Madison County (Huntsville).

The Election Race

This election almost appears to be a model for post- Harvey Weinstein politics.

The Republicans have picked an extremeist: their candidate Roy Moore – a 70 year-old judge from Gadsden who provoked international controversy whilst he was the state’s Chief Justice for placing the Ten Commandments outside his constitutionally-secular court. That in itself does not necessarily mark him out as an extremeist: however his involvement in white nationalism, neo-Confederacy, homophobia, Islamophobia and Birther-ism does. He has said that the 1965 Voting Rights Act (that guaranteed voting rights to African Amercians) was a mistake.

During the Senate campaign itself, he has both suggested that George Soros was bound for hell, in comments many have interpreted as being ant-Semitic, and that there was a good side to slavery in the state.

If that is not enough to make the average Alabaman think that he might not be the best person to represent them in the nation’s highest political chamber, then perhaps his sexual conduct should. By his own admission, he had sexual relationships with teenagers when he was much older than them, but the allegations are much worse: nine women have accused him of inappropriate sexual behaviour, three of whom allege sexual assault. One says that she was 14, and he 32, when the assault took place. Another woman has stated that he started pursuing her when she was 15 and assaulted her when she was 16.

Senior Republicans have called for him to withdraw from the election, saying that they believe his accusers. Moore has not, and Donald Trump has since attended a rally to give Moore his blessing.

This is all in stark contrast to the Democratic candidate, Doug Jones, who is most famous for having pursued, and convicted, the child murderers in one of Alabama’s darkest events.

On 15 September 1963, the Ku Klux Klan planted fifteen sticks of dynamite at Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church. The explosion blew a seven foot wide hole in the wall of the church, killing four young girls, aged 11 to 14, and injuring 22 others.

The first bomber was eventually convicted 14 years later but it took 39 years – and US Attorney Doug Jones – to put the other two living perpetrators behind bars.

Doug Jones sums up the best of Alabama, Roy Moore its worst.

Indeed, the polls since Moore’s selection have always shown the Senate race to be tighter than those previous recent elections. Since the revelations of Moore’s sexual impropriety surfaced last month, Jones took the lead in a number of polls. But recent polls have given Moore a narrow lead. Perhaps, given that no prosecutions have taken place, many Alabamans have chosen to give Moore the benefit of the doubt in a way that his party’s leader in the Senate has not.

The latest polling gives Moore a 4 point lead on Jones.

This is still nip-and-tuck though. Whilst Moore is now in pole-position, a Jones victory is not impossible.

Having looked at a number of past state-wide elections, for Jones to pull off a victory, he needs a map that looks something like this:

This is based on the swing needed to take the state being applied county by county against an average of recent state-wide election results. Jones needs some big wins in the Black Belt, although some of the necessary leads suggested there are staggeringly high: over 90% in Macon and Greene counties. But these are not very populous counties, and so the Democrats can afford a little slippage there if they do well in more densely populated areas.

What is clear though is that Jones needs to push out from the Black Belt to both its north and south and do well in the urban areas. Clinton’s 7% edge in Jefferson county needs to be around 30% for Jones to win, and he needs to take Mobile and Madison counties too (our model suggests that he needs to win Madison county by about 7% and Mobile County by 14%).

If you are watching the data come in, look at how the light blue counties above go. If Jones is winning these (and enough light pink ones to offset any missed) he can win through.

Such a victory would be a massive victory for the Democrats given the state’s recent history, and a body blow to both the Republicans and Donald Trump in particular.

But if Moore holds on to places like Madison, Talledega, Tuscaloosa and Lee counties, the Alabama senate race will end up being just another Democratic near-miss in the South.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: