Last week’s Alabama Senate race results remain worth studying carefully for two main reasons. First, the bizarro and self-destructive intra-Republican politics that handed victory to a Democrat in this deeply red state keep playing out. And second, reading the tea leaves correctly will be critical to figuring out whether, as is widely claimed, the triumph of former federal prosecutor Doug Jones does indeed herald the demise of the currently Trump-influenced brand of the Republican Party.
My overall conclusion: The fate of Trump-ism post-Alabama is still very much up in the air for most of the same reasons that its fate was up in the air pre-Alabama. Because as suggested above, the President and his main allies and surrogates have done such a lousy job of turning a reasonably coherent populist 2016 presidential campaign message into even a minimally coherent governing program.
And from this overall conclusion flow two follow-on conclusions: First, the conventional wisdom surrounding the Republican defeat in Alabama seems considerably off-base. The totality of the polling data shows that it can be mainly blamed on the deep personal and policy flaws of candidate Roy S. Moore rather than on any serious weakening of Trump-ism in the state. That’s lucky both for the President and for Republicans smart enough to recognize that the party’s continued viability depends on abandoning the orthodox conservative agenda still championed by its Washington/establishment wing but so roundly rejected by the voters.
Second, and much more troubling for Mr. Trump and his supporters: In the Alabama intra-party politicking, they showed no greater ability to get their messaging act – and competence – act together than they have in the national political and policy arenas as a whole. And the most glaring sign of this continuing confusion was the decision of the President and initially of his putative ideological guru, Steven K. Bannon to endorse Moore.
The by-now-standard interpretation of Alabama is that a closely related combination of anti-Moore and anti-Trump sentiments pushed black voter turnout in the state way up, turned off many moderate or independent white suburbanites who had gone for the president in 2016, and tipped the election to Jones. Moreover, these Alabama trends supposedly mirrored developments in the November Virginia gubernatorial race in particular, where a Democrat also prevailed – and look like a promising formula for a Democratic comeback in next year’s off-year Congressional races big enough to flip the House or Senate or both, and for regaining the White House in 2020.
But even without the Moore factor, these claims overlook big differences between Alabama and Virginia. Principally, the latter is steadily becoming reliably Democratic, as voters from more liberal areas of the country have flocked to the Old Dominion’s Washington, D.C. suburbs, attracted by government and government-related jobs. In fact, it’s voted blue in the last three presidential contests after staying in the GOP column every year since 1964.
With the Moore factor, the Alabama conventional wisdom looks even weaker, at least if you take the exit polls seriously. (Unless otherwise indicated, the following soundings come from the official exit polls for Alabama from the 2004, 2008, and 2012 presidential general elections, for the 2016 Republican primary in the state, and for last week’s Senate election.)
It’s true that black turnout was impressive – especially for an off-year election. At 29 percent, it even exceeded the African-American vote in 2012 (a presidential year, when all turnout tends to rise, and when black Americans obviously found Barack Obama a more compelling choice than 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton). It’s also true that because President Trump is reviled in the black community (with approval ratings in the mid-single digits), his endorsement of Moore prompted many Alabama African-Americans to “send him a message.” At the same time, in the 2004 presidential race (the last pre-Obama campaign), Republican president George W. Bush attracted only six percent of their vote (with somewhat lower – 25 percent – turnout). So it’s quite possible that whatever image problems Alabama blacks have with Republicans started well before the Trump era.
There’s also considerable polling evidence for the view that overlapping blocs of moderates, independents, and suburbanites, which gave Trump such noteworthy support in 2016, displayed some buyer’s remorse last week. For example, Moore did win the burbs – but only by a 51 percent to 47 percent margin. That’s much smaller than Mitt Romney’s 66 percent to 33 percent performance. And although there were no Alabama exit polls conducted for the 2016 presidential election, the primary polls report Trump winning fully half of Republican suburbanites – more than twice the share garnered by the next most successful GOP candidate (in a large field), Texas Senator Ted Cruz.
What about the self-described political moderates? In 2012, 52 percent supported Romney – much more than Moore’s 25 percent. Moore’s appeal to these voters also looks paltry compared with Trump’s last year. The president was backed by 40 percent of these voters – many more than supported the runner-up in this category, Florida Senator Marco Rubio.
And the same picture is created by self-described independent voters. Fully three quarters pulled a Romney lever in 2012 – three times the share won by Moore. (The 2016 exit poll lacked any data on this question.)
Yet I find more compelling the evidence that Alabama is sui generis. For starters, although by 53 percent to 42 percent, the state’s voters said that the sexual misconduct allegations against Moore were not “an important factor” in their vote, by 60 percent to 35 percent, they described them as “a factor.”
Let’s drill down a little further. Jones won 49.9 percent of the total vote, and slightly more Alabama voters (51 percent) expressed a favorable opinion of him. Moore won 48.4 percent of the total, but 56 percent of the state’s voters viewed him unfavorably. In addition, whereas 65 percent of Jones’ supporters favored him “strongly,” that was the case for only 41 percent of Moore supporters.
These Moore favorable ratings indicate that he suffered from a distinct enthusiasm gap among his core evangelical backers, and several exit poll indicators support this supposition. Evangelical turnout was slightly lower in 2017 (44 percent of the electorate) than in 2012 or 2008 (47 percent). Moreover, although Moore captured 81 percent of this vote, that share was down from Romney’s 90 percent in 2012, Senator John McCain’s 92 percent in 2008, and George W. Bush’s 88 percent.
And although the size of the 2016 primary field makes comparisons with last year difficult, evangelicals made up 77 percent of the Republican vote (a little lower than last week), and 43 percent went for Trump – nearly twice as many (22 percent) as those who voted for Cruz, the next best performer.
Among the signs that Moore dismay was evident among other voting blocs? He lost parents with children by 56 percent to 42 percent, and mothers with children by a much wider 66 percent to 32 percent. But although losing women overall by 57 percent to 41 percent, Moore won white women by 63 percent to 34 percent.
As for the impact on the President himself? Clearly negative. Mr. Trump remains significantly more popular in Alabama (48 percent approve of his performance as president) than nationwide (just under 38 percent approval according to the RealClearPolitics.com average of the latest soundings). But he won the state by a 62.9 percent to 34.6 percent margin over Clinton, so that’s a huge drop off.
Yet although the president’s nationwide ratings are quite low compared with those of his most recent predecessors at this point in their terms, it’s nothing unusual for them to take a dive after a year in office. Further, 51 percent of Alabama voters told the exit pollsters that Mr. Trump was “not a factor” in their decisions. In fact, the president’s approval ratings among Alabamians are higher than those of the Republican (43 percent) and Democratic (47 percent) parties overall. They’re also higher than those of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky (46 percent), whose support of incumbent fill-in Alabama GOP Senator Luther Strange (appointed to replace now Attorney General Jeff Sessions) was deeply resented by many Republicans in the state.
All the same, as the end of his first year in office approaches, the President obviously is less popular than at the start of his term, and it’s easy to see why from simply considering the ideologically scrambled squabbling among Republicans that marked the process of choosing their Alabama Senate nominee. Given his party’s painful experiences with fringe-y candidates in previous campaigns – like Todd Akin of Missouri and Christine O’Donnell of Delaware – it was understandable that McConnell and the rest of the party’s establishment wanted someone far safer to run against Moore. But Strange lacked any ability to connect with the populism and broader voter anger that remains white hot throughout Alabama and nationwide. Even less explicable, a third candidate in the Republican Senate primary – Congressman Mo Brooks – appeared to have combined populist fire with a record that raised no Moore-like questions whatever. Why was McConnell so uninterested in him?
Much more mysteriously, why did Bannon opt for Moore over Brooks – who shared all of his economic nationalist and small-government impulses? His choice is all the more baffling given his acknowledgment last week that “Judge Moore has never been, really, an economics guy. If Mo Brooks had been running here, immigration and trade would’ve been at the top of the agenda — and bringing jobs back to Alabama.” And how come Bannon with all his contacts in the state couldn’t uncover the information about Moore’s sexual past that was reported by Washington Post journalists in the state on temporary assignment? The White House, of course, flunked this basic test, too.
The president’s endorsement of Strange makes some sense, however, at least according to narrow political criteria. He supported McConnell’s choice because, as I’ve written, he believes he needs to maintain the backing of the Republican Party’s Washington-Congressional wing to survive any possible impeachment proceedings. In other words, at least some of the blame for the contradictions that have been hampering Mr. Trump on both substance and politicking lies with the Democrats. But of course, the president and his aides have given their opponents plenty of Russia-gate ammunition. And whoever or whatever is mainly at fault, the chief problem created by this bind is a powerful one. For the Republican establishment’s agenda remains as unpopular this year as it was last – which is largely why the Obamacare repeals have failed and why the Republican tax bill remains so unpopular with the public.
In other words, the kind of chaos (and yes, I’ve deliberately used former 2016 GOP presidential hopeful Jeb Bush’s description of the Trump campaign and personality) on display in this Alabama scrum surely reminded voters there about everything that’s always made them uneasy about the president. Although ready to roll the dice with him as a candidate, it’s easy to see why they find his presidency far more troubling – and why these doubts could easily spread further nation-wide, and take deeper root, unless Mr. Trump finds a way to squelch them.