Can Doug Jones, a Democrat, win a Senate seat in Alabama when voters go to the polls in a special election on Dec. 12?
The polls say the race is tight. Most press attention focuses on the Republican Judge Roy Moore, an extreme and controversial figure even before he was hit with credible charges of sexual misconduct with teenage girls. Moore’s weakness is obvious. The big question is whether Jones can mobilize enough voters to take advantage. That may be less about Moore than about the new Alabama waiting to take political form.
The odds against Jones are forbidding. As Perry Bacon Jr. pointed out in FiveThirtyEight, the last Democratic presidential candidate to win the state was Jimmy Carter in 1976. A Democrat last won a Senate seat in 1992. Alabama is the “heart of Dixie.” Obama won only 16 percent of the white vote here (as opposed to 41 percent nationally). Hillary Clinton fared even worse, winning little more than a third of the total vote.
About 71 percent of the electorate is white, about 25 percent black. A stunning 35 percent of the vote comes from white evangelicals, an increasingly rabid Republican voting bloc. Forty-one percent comes from rural areas, which are trending Republican despite their relative poverty.
The formula for winning is obvious. According to Bacon, Jones has to capture about 35 percent of the white vote, 90 percent of the black vote and 70 percent of other people of color. He has to win the core Democratic vote, gain support among Republican crossover voters turned off by Moore, and mobilize a massive turnout of the black vote. Turnout for a special election will be key. Republican turnout could be down, since the only reason to show up is to vote for Moore. Democratic turnout is usually down in off-year and special elections, but since Trump’s election, Democratic voters have been coming out in larger numbers.
Missing in this electoral calculus is the reality of a new Alabama that has been slowly developing in the wake of the civil rights movement. Last weekend, the state was riveted by the Iron Bowl football rivalry between the University of Alabama and Auburn. Black and white fans of each team cheered black and white players on each team. What mattered was the color of the uniform, not the color of their skin.
With the end of segregation, Alabama could attract new industries. Now it is the fifth-leading car and light truck producer in the United States. Mercedes, Honda and Hyundai manufacture there. None of these companies would have been there under apartheid. Soldiers of all races and creeds work together on military bases. Alabama is a center of aeronautics. NASA built the rocket that took man to the moon in Alabama. Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon have centers there. They couldn’t operate behind walls of racial separation.
Thirty-two percent of Alabama voters have a college degree. In the wake of the civil rights movement, women won the right to serve on juries and young people the right to vote. There is an emerging coalition of single women, young people and people of color waiting to be built.
Yet in politics the old divides and fears still fester. Republicans, of course, fan racial division for their benefit. Roy Moore, newborn champion of Confederate monuments, is a master of that. Democrats have inherited the black vote but have tended to ignore it, spending little energy or resources on registering and turning out that vote.
Doug Jones can’t win without a massive turnout of black votes. As a prosecutor, he showed courage in prosecuting and convicting the knaves that murdered the four little girls in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing. His campaign has erected billboards to remind voters of that, and he has the resources for radio and newspaper ads, targeted mail and mass volunteer door-knocking.
But once more the Democratic Party is starting late and doing too little. Of 902,000 voting-age African-Americans in Alabama, analyst Frank Watkins reports, 273,000 are unregistered. Another 15 percent — 143,900 — are disqualified due to felony convictions. The Democratic Party has spent little energy or resources in registering minority people of voting age. Many college students didn’t know that the deadline to register was Nov. 27, when most were away for Thanksgiving.
The savviest African-American politician in Alabama, state Sen. Hank Sanders, warns, “Right now, many African-Americans do not know there is an election on Dec. 12.” The NAACP has begun calling “sometimes voters” to get out the vote. Jones should be campaigning with Sanders and others, and introducing himself to black congregations. Real resources need to go into black newspapers and radio stations.
The appeal to black voters is one that speaks to white voters as well. In Alabama, millions go without health care because the conservative governor won’t accept expansion of Medicaid. Working people of all races need better wages and affordable care. Young people need investment in schools, affordable college or advanced training.
Moore’s extremism and personal flaws — he was a weak candidate even before the recent exposures — open the door for change. There is a new Alabama that has grown beyond old racial divides.
Against the odds, Jones might be able to bring together a new coalition. If he succeeds, it will open the door for other changes. If he fails, Democrats must learn to stop ignoring their core voters between campaigns and start appealing on kitchen table issues across race lines.