A look at the Numbers in the Alabama Senate Race


Where my predictions were right, where they were wrong, and why.

Dec 13, 2017

Last night, Democrat Doug Jones won in a huge upset over Republican Roy Moore to become the next Senator from Alabama. Alabama went 63% for Donald Trump in 2016 and routinely has Republicans running for the Senate unopposed. Tuesday, Alabamans voted for the Democrat 49.9% to 48.3% for the Republican.

I had made a couple of predictions on Twitter about the how the race would shake out before the polls closed. One was pretty accurate, if I do say so myself. The other was incredibly wrong, and the reason why I missed the mark so badly is actually telling about how this upset result came about. For my own sake though I’ll start with the prediction that was accurate.

Bellwethers

I tried to identify three bellwether counties that might be instructive in the outcome of the race. Throughout election night, they did tend towards a Doug Jones victory. I’ll be referring to information on each county from the Secretary of State of Alabama’s website. The Secretary of State for each state is usually in charge of elections and their websites will often post county-results in real time or when the county reaches 100% reporting. It’s a good place to look to on election night if you don’t trust the information or punditry coming out of the NY Times Upshot needle or CNN’s latest hologram map – or if you just want to out-nerd your friend who’s checking the live analysis on FiveThirtyEight.

Jefferson County

Jefferson County

Jefferson county is the largest county in Alabama, so maximizing the vote there is a key to any state-wide electoral victory. Doug Jones took the county by a 38 point margin, and most importantly had a turnout at nearly 50%. Like most high-population counties, it leans Democratic. However, Jefferson also includes conservative suburbs outside the urban center in Birmingham.

Jefferson county usually starts election night with extremely high margins in favor of the Democrat, and they tick down throughout the night because the suburbs take longer to come in than Birmingham. Last night was no different, and Jefferson county hovered at about 80% for Doug Jones until the end of the night.

Despite narrowing near the end, Jones took Jefferson county by a much wider margin than normal. Even the early 80% margin is higher than usual for statewide Democrats, implying that a lot of the turnout was African Americans and urban voters in Birmingham. This bellwether county clearly pointed towards a Jones victory.

Autauga County

Autauga County

Autauga county, as I Tweeted, has the highest percentage of reported Evangelicals of any county in Alabama. Evangelicals, especially in the South, are evergreen Republican voters and extremely conservative ones at that.

A well-worn statistic used by pundits in post-2016 is that 72% of Evangelicals say that a politician that has committed immoral acts can still be a good leader, up dramatically from 30% in the Obama administration. (Would you be surprised to know that the number was even lower in the Clinton administration?) The Alabama Senate race was a test of how much immorality white Evangelical voters would tolerated, and Roy Moore showed there were limits even in this time of tribal politics.

Autauga county’s turnout is a little shy of the 40% turnout statewide, and much lower than Jefferson county’s turnout. While Moore won the county by over 20 points, the lower turnout and relatively high write-in vote total showed that many white Evangelical voters were staying home or voting for someone other than the Republican nominee. All signs that this bellwether county was trending away from Moore. In fact, Evangelical turnout was down across the state, and 3% of white voters turned in a write-in vote.

Montgomery County

Montgomery County

Lastly, Montgomery county is right in the middle of the black belt. Originally named for the dark soil that spans the middle of the state, it’s now a term for a ring of blue counties in Alabama with high African American populations that split the state in two. Montgomery is also one of the largest black belt cities, so high turnout there is essential for a Democrat trying to pull off an upset.

Here we see almost a mirror image of Autauga county. Higher than average turnout, lower than average write-ins, and a huge 46 point margin for Doug Jones. There’s not much else to say about this county. The Democrat won because African Americans turned out in huge numbers, and Evangelicals and ardent white Republicans were turned off by reports of Moore’s horrific behavior.

How Long Did it Take To Know Who Won?

It’s always hard to predict when an election will be called, so I knew it was risky. But boy was I wrong. The Associated Press called the election for Jones just before 9:30pm Central time in Alabama, and all the major outlets followed suit before 10:00pm.

Part of why I got this prediction wrong is how fast the vote came in. Normally, Alabama has the votes come in from cities like Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma. Then, the rural parts of the state trickle in slowly over the course of the night. Usually you have 70% of the vote in by 11pm and then things begin to slow down.

On Tuesday, though, the vote came in much faster. The AP called the race with 80% of the vote in, more than normal for that early in the night. The likely reason for the speed with which votes were counted goes back to the split between cities and rural areas. Turnout was up in the cities, and down in rural areas – a harbinger of a Jones victory. So the city vote came in fast, as it usually does, and the outcome of the race was clear earlier than expected.

Final Thoughts

The 2016 election caused lay observers of politics and sound-bite hungry pundits to declare an end to political science as we know it. Others said the rules of politics no longer applied. Others still announced that nothing mattered anymore, and that demagoguery would reign. For whatever else this election means, it shows that reports of retail politics’ death have been greatly exaggerated.

The Doug Jones campaign knocked on 300,000 doors and made over a million phone calls. Roy Moore proved that even the most partisan voters had a threshold of revulsion passed which they would not turn out. As a mere observer of this campaign, it was nice to see an election day that was focused on turnout and county returns and shoe leather and all the other things that “conventional wisdom” said no longer counted. People like to define the times by the craziest thing that’s happened in recent memory, and it is always a recipe for underestimating the quiet power of those who churn out results the way they have for generations before and will for generations to come.