What I’ll be Watching on Election Night in Alabama

Zac McCrary
Dec 12, 2017 · 7 min read

Zac McCrary, ALG Research

As a Democratic pollster based in Alabama, I’ve said a lot of words about the Senate race over the past few months. I can make a case that polls are understating the enthusiasm for Jones and that he could see a similar surge to Ralph Northam in Virginia — and maybe Jones wins by several points. And, as many colleagues are apt to remind me, “we are talking about Alabama” — and you’ll never go broke betting on Republicans to win statewide races in Alabama.

The unusual turnout dynamics in a special election held 13 days before Christmas make it very difficult to know what the electorate will look like. Polls have been all over the place — just in the last 24 hours there have been public polls showing the race from +10 Jones to +9 Moore. As a Democrat who’d like to see Jones win, I take some comfort in the fact that the polls with more reliable methodology (dialing voters via cell phone) forecast a better Jones’ result than those which only dial landlines (which show a pro-Moore bent). But ultimately, polling in this race only truly indicates that it’s by no means clear who will win.

Much of the uncertainty is driven by not knowing the likely racial composition of the electorate. A lower African American turnout (say, comprising 24% of the electorate) makes things very tough for Jones — whereas a higher African American turnout (28% of the electorate) would make the math for a Jones victory much more manageable. Beyond African American turnout, can Jones reshape the white electorate and make it at least a touch younger, a touch more female, and a touch more highly educated than a usual mid-term electorate? That might be the key to hitting his “win number” with whites. Under either scenario, Jones has to dramatically overperform the basic Democratic DNA of the state. And, of course, if enough Republicans make peace with the idea of turning out to vote for Roy Moore, then most of these other turnout questions are moot.

The emergence of the state’s highest profile Republican, Senator Richard Shelby, as a vocal proponent of a movement to write-in a GOP alternative to Roy Moore is another wildcard. If even a fraction of Republicans or conservative-minded Independents write-in their vote, then Alabama’s next Senator could be elected with 48 or 49%. In Moore’s 2012 race, his Democratic opponent Bob Vance received more than 48%. In GA-06 earlier this year, Jon Ossoff topped 48%. In the SC-05 special election, Democratic nominee Archie Parnell took more than 48% of the two-party vote. Generally speaking, the higher the share of write-ins, the better I believe it is for Doug Jones.

The truth is I don’t know who’s going to win — and anyone who speaks too definitively about the outcome will be right only by accident. With that said, here are a few of the things I’ll be watching tomorrow as votes start to roll in.

Certainly Jones has to win the four big urban counties — Jefferson (Birmingham), Madison (Huntsville), Montgomery, and Mobile. Jones needs to carry each of those four and needs well into the 60s in Jefferson County and probably 70%+ in Montgomery County. My guess is that’s doable due to the solid African American base in each, plus the largely suburban voters who comprise the white population. Madison County is often one of the earlier counties to report — and if Jones is nearing a a double-digit margin there, then that would be a very encouraging sign.

Jones certainly has to turn out African American voters in these four big urban areas — but Jones also must activate black voters in the rural central swath of the state known as the Black Belt (a reference to the region’s dark soil, not skin color). These are not terribly populous counties, but do represent a majority-African American band across the central part of the state. Cities like like Selma and Tuskegee are the tent-poles of the Black Belt. In 2016, Hillary Clinton netted more votes out of these combined rural counties than she did by winning either of the much more populous counties of Jefferson or Montgomery. Jones will earn 70%+ in these counties (some nearing 90%) — but of course maximizing turnout is key. There are existing Democratic groups on the ground with track records of being able to turn out voters — and Jones is well-resourced, so one can see how Jones can conceivably hit his Black Belt target numbers.

Beyond turning out and solidifying Democratic voters, there are a couple of suburban counties that are traditionally EXTREMELY Republican where Moore has struggled in the past and Jones must run dramatically better than base Democratic performance.

- Shelby County is a suburban county adjacent to Birmingham — historically very, very Republican. By many measures, Shelby is probably the most Republican county in the state for most of the past generation — but it’s high-income, highly-educated so is also the type of GOP turf that’s not a natural fit for Roy Moore. In the 2012 election, Moore under-performed Mitt Romney by 14 points in Shelby County. Hillary Clinton took 23% here in 2016, and Jones probably needs to hit the high 30s — maybe even needs 40%+. This county is really ground zero for finding Bush/Romney style Republicans who will vote for Jones.

- Baldwin County neighbors Mobile on the Alabama Gulf Coast. It’s strongly Republican, but — like Shelby County — has a suburban core as well as high-end coastal areas. Moore ran 12 points behind Romney in this county in 2012. Hillary Clinton took 19% in 2016 — Jones probably needs around 37% here. Steve Bannon’s first Alabama event last week was based in Baldwin County and the Trump event in the Florida Panhandle was right next door. Clearly, the Republicans are concerned that they won’t get the turnout and margins they need here.

- Limestone/Morgan Counties next door to Madison County (Huntsville) is akin to Shelby and Baldwin. Both have booming populations — highly educated, high income, and many work in the Huntsville aerospace industry or related fields. These are not necessarily Moore’s base constituency, but are areas that have been performing very GOP lately. Hillary Clinton took in the low 20s in these areas; Jones might need 40%+.

Beyond running up a big margin in the four big counties and taking advantage of Moore’s weakness in historically GOP suburban areas, I’d also flag the following areas to watch:

- The Shoals area in Northwest AL (Lauderdale County / Colbert County). This is historically populist Dem turf — the home of Senator Howell Heflin (who Jones worked for). There is an organized labor footprint here — and with blue-collar, populist roots, it was once a place where Democrats did well. But the Democratic vote has collapsed here over the last decade. This would be the most obvious area Jones could claw back some working class, non-college white voters. Jones doesn’t have to win these counties — but likely needs well into the mid 40s in both.

- The two larger college counties could also be places Jones’ finds non-traditional Democratic voters. Those include Tuscaloosa County (West AL near MS border) that is home to the University of Alabama and Lee County (East AL on Georgia border), where Auburn University is. While these counties generally trend Republican, they are traditionally more elastic than the state as a whole. Both have a base of African Americans, some population of high-educated, suburban voters — and perhaps Jones can capture some college students who wouldn’t normally be in a special election universe due to the spotlight placed on this race and Moore’s toxicity with younger Alabamians. If Jones really surprises with his margins somewhere on Election Day, these two counties would be candidates. Jones almost certainly has to win Tuscaloosa in the mid 50s (HRC took 38%) and needs to come close to breaking even in Lee (HRC took 36%).

- I’d also flag Moore’s home county of Etowah County as a place of interest. This area has really been put through the ringer during the Moore scandal — and the “Gadsden Mall” (where my grandfather worked for decades in the Sears’ hardware department) has unfortunately become a national punchline. Moore has never been terribly strong here, despite his roots. In 2012, Romney took 68% in Etowah County to Moore’s 55%. And Moore lost his home county in both the 2006 and 2010 GOP primaries during his failed gubernatorial races. It’s very hard to imagine Jones winning Etowah outright — but there is a chance Jones keeps the margin within single digits in Moore’s home county, which is otherwise the type of blue-collar, largely white part of the state where Moore would be expected to do very well.

Another dynamic I’d flag is turnout in largely white, rural counties. These are the places where Moore needs to put up big margins to counter expected Jones’ margins out of urban areas. Counties like Lamar / Marion in West Alabama that border Mississippi or Cleburne / Cherokee that border Georgia and maybe most importantly the Wiregrass in the Southeast part of the state. These are all rural, more down-scale, largely white counties (with some pockets of Afr Am vote)— that comprise Moore’s traditional base. If turnout here is depressed due to his scandal or broader enthusiasm problems rear their head for the GOP, then that opens the door for Jones much wider. Steve Bannon’s election even rally in the Wiregrass’ largest city (Dothan) underscores the turnout importance in this region.

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If Democratic turnout surges in the metro areas and/or the Black Belt, then these county-by-county targets become less meaningful. Or if due to a heavy write-in share, Jones only needs 48 or 49% instead of 50% — then some of these targets are on the high side. And likewise, if the bottom further drops out of the (already painfully low) Democratic support in white rural areas, then perhaps no amount of Jones’ strength in the big metro counties can offset it.

Ultimately, I don’t have a great feel for who’s going to win. Only a schmuck would try to make a prediction. And this schmuck predicts Jones wins by 2 points.

Zac McCrary is a partner at Anzalone List Grove Research.

Zac McCrary

Written by

Democratic pollster. Partner, ALG Research.

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