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Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Meaning of the Alabama Election

As Doug Jones himself pointed out in his victory speech Tuesday night, his win over Roy Moore was, as much as anything, a great victory for Alabama.  For the first time in roughly half a century, a progressive Democrat had won a statewide election there, following in the tradition of Hugo Black, John Sparkman, Lister Hill, and 1950s Governor Jim Folsom. (Although Sparkman and Hill were segregationists, they were New Deal liberals on everything else and helped pass a lot of important legislation.)  Meanwhile, the victory signals today’s Democratic Party that all is not lost, and that the elections next year might turn out much better than expected.  Exactly why Jones won, however, is being misunderstood, because so many people do not understand the numerical dynamics of American politics and off-year elections.

Black turnout is frequently being credited for Jones’s victory, and it played a part.  I have seen references to a “surge” in black voter turnout.  That, however, is somewhat misleading.  Considerably fewer black (and white) people voted for Jones, as a matter of fact, than voted for Hillary Clinton a year ago.  And even the relatively good turnout of black voters on Tuesday was not the main reason that Jones won.  As I hope to make clear, the figures leave no doubt about this at all.

We easily forget that the distribution of political power in our country is heavily impacted by people’s failure to vote.   Last year only 55.4% of the voting-age population cast ballots in what has turned out to be one of the more consequential elections in American history.  Yet as we shall see in a moment, even that low figure is much higher than turnout in off-year elections such as 2014 or (in three states) 2017.  And we need to understand that to understand what happened in Alabama.

To illustrate this point, I want to compare presidential and off-year voting in two hotly contested purple states, North Carolina and Virginia.  Alabama, of course, is not usually a purple state, but it momentarily became one last Tuesday, when the electorate at the polls divided almost evenly. 
The North Carolina votes for President in 2012 [sic] and for Senate in 2014 provide a very simple control, because although Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney in the former year and Republican Tom Tillis beat incumbent Kay Hagan in 2014, both elections were extremely close, indicating that differences in turnout affected both sides about equally.  North Carolinians, it turns out, cast 4,448,786 votes for President in 2012, and just 2,915,281 for the Senate in 2014.  That represents a 35% drop in total turnout—both sides, in short, lost about 1/3 of their votes.  

 Turning to a more recent (and relevant) comparison, we find that purple Virginia cast 3,984,631 votes for President in 2016, with Hillary Clinton winning by a comfortable five percentage points, and just 2,614,282 in 2017—an almost exactly equal decline of 34%.  When we look at the votes for the Democratic and Republican gubernatorial candidates, however, we find an unequal decline.  Republican Ed Gillespie’s vote was 66% of Donald Trump’s, while Democrat Ralph Northam’s was a full 71% of Hillary Clinton’s. (The reason both parties showed declines smaller than the overall 34% decline in turnout is that minor parties won several percentage points of the 2016 vote, but only 1% of the 2017 vote.)  Northam held on to a higher percentage of Clinton’s vote than Gillespie did of Trump’s—and this allowed him to win by a very comfortable margin of 54%-45%.

            What happened in Alabama Tuesday followed the same pattern, but on a mind-boggling scale.  Here are the results of the Alabama presidential elections of 2012 and 2016, and the Senate election this week.

2012 Presidential election
Romney 1,255,925 61%
Obama   795,696 38%

              2016 Presidential election
Trump   1,318,255 62.1%
Clinton: 729,547 34.4%

2016 Senate election
Shelby (R) 1,335,104
Crumpton (D) 748,709

              2017 Senate election
Moore 652,300
Jones: 673,236

         Comparing the two presidential results, it is not surprising that Barack Obama was a significantly more popular candidate in Alabama than Hillary Clinton, or, sadly, that Donald Trump did somewhat better than Mitt Romney.  But moving to the Senate, what happened yesterday suddenly becomes very clear indeed.  Neither black turnout nor Democratic turnout overall, it seems to me, could reasonably be said to have “surged” compared to 2017, since Jones didn’t get as many votes as Crumpton. But he totaled 90% of Crumpton’s vote, which is, indeed, an extraordinary figure compared to a more expected 65% off-year total of the previous presidential election.  Because of the peculiar circumstances of this race—the candidacy of Roy Moore and the related incumbency of Donald Trump—it looks at first glance as if the Democratic Party turned out an extra 15% of its votes, compared to what normally would have been expected.
That in itself, however, would not have won the election for Jones. Equally striking is the collapse of Republican vote, which was almost only 49% of what it was last year.  While the Democrats turned out 15% more votes than expected, the Republicans turned out 16% less.  And since the Republican vote last year was much, much larger than the Democratic one, the Republican decline was almost twice as responsible for Jones’s victory than the Democrats’ success in turning out more votes than expected.  Had it not been for the evident antipathy of a substantial number of Republicans towards Roy Moore, he still would have won.

But that is not all. This analysis assumes that no significant number of voters cast ballots for Trump in 2016 and Jones in 2017.  Evidence suggests, however, that that is not true.  First, polls show that a good many Republican women crossed over to vote for Jones.  And secondly, at least one estimate—which I received over the phone from a reliable source, but unfortunately can’t document—is that black turnout this year was only 80% of what it was last year, less than the overall Democratic figure of 90% of last year. 

The Democrats won one of the reddest states in the nation because the Republicans fielded one of the weakest candidates in modern history, a 21st-century theocrat who was reported to have pursued and molested teenagers many years ago, while they fielded a very strong one (as Jones in his victory speech showed himself to be.)  Jones’s win is a great result that shows there is a limit to what moderate Republicans, including southern ones, will swallow.  But it is certainly not clear that Moore’s defeat portends any general swing towards the Democrats in red states—or indicates any ability on the Democrats’ part to get the 45% of the eligible population that never votes to go to the polls.  The vote vindicated the Republican establishment, and one of the big losers Tuesday was Steve Bannon.


thomas said...

Thank you - while Democratic ground game was responsible for keeping the mark relatively high for Jones' floor, it's hard to see how that alone was the difference maker. The biggest thing that jumped out to me was a chart over on 538 on election night at 10:57pm on their live blog: http://fivethirtyeight.com/live-blog/alabama-senate-election-results/

Jones was winning the counties that had the closest difference in turnout numbers between '16 and '17. It's easy to see that has high turnout benefiting Jones, but importantly Moore was *only* winning the counties that a turnout difference of 25 + percentage points from last year. Meaning rural counties might be going red big time, but nobody was showing up to vote.

Shelterdog said...

Very interesting. But how can you compare voter turnout in a general election with that of a special election? I would expect the turnout for virtually ANY special election would be far less.

David Kaiser said...

Perhaps you should reread, Shelterdog. I made a great effort to establish what a normal fall-off seems to be.


Ed Boyle said...

Peak extremism maybe. There is party ideology, propaganda, etc. and there is real everyday life. I guess real people know what a freak is, left or right wing and will avoid it. Demagoguery gets people worked up in the normal election cycle however and not everybodywill be so thoroughly scrutinized as moore was when hundreds are running for office. As you discussed last week regarding pornography people of course reject anormal or amoral behaviour, at least in people of public standing like elected officials, private citizens enjoying wider freedoms. This is where your analysis of presidential fidelity, both parties, from some weeks ago, comes into play. A used car salesman miight be a serial wife cheater, but our president? And what with really oddball behaviour and absolutely hypocritical contradictory moral stance of a politician like Moore there is zero patience. Freak shows are normal at the end of a generational cycle in a dysfunctional society, recall Adolf and his entourage in the 30s. Hillary and Trump are freaks but also a reflection of ourselves becoming dysfunctional over decdes and hardly noticing it, like the frog getting slowly boiled in the pot. It has to get worse before it gets better. Buy Bitcoins, nuke pyongyang, false flag war for profit somewhere, let the people rot and fight one another. Maybe Moore ain't such a freak after all. Is Trump normal and safer than Hillary would have been, taking cues from neocon warlord chicken hawks? Both are beholden to Wall Street. God help us avoiding the catatrophe of those in real power. Is a slow collapse possible, like what our middle class is suffering, for USA might as a whole, to remove the dangers of global conflagration by this power cartel and elected freaks? Our lives depend on a wind down of USA militarization and economic dominance without regard to moral codes or responsibility.