CIRULI: Roy Moore’s fate shows character counts — while control of the House teeters

Author: Floyd Ciruli - January 3, 2018 - Updated: January 3, 2018

Floyd Ciruli

My Dec. 6 blog on the Alabama Senate race opened with, “Alabama Judge Roy Moore is in the first post-Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, et.al. sex scandal election.” His loss in a state that Republicans have held a near total lock on since the early 1990s was a powerful demonstration that character counts.Because of the uniqueness of the election and difficulty of capturing the turnout patterns of major constituencies; i.e., African Americans, rural whites, Millennials, and suburban women, final polls and conventional wisdom, including Democratic commentators, thought Moore was likely to eke out a win. Polls in the last week showed Moore winning by 4 to 9 points, except that the last reported poll conducted by Fox News had Doug Jones up by 10 points. Most observers thought the Fox News poll was an outlier, not a harbinger. But Jones won with about 21,000 votes, or 1.5 percent, of the 1.3 million votes cast.

The following are some conclusions from the election.

Paul Ryan Quits?

The election has significant impact for Republicans as the 2018 contests begin. The first casualty of the Alabama result may be Paul Ryan. He sees the election, as do most political observers, as a mirror image of the 63-seat disaster for Democrats in 2010. Ryan does not intend on being the minority leader, defending the ever embattled and seldom grateful Donald Trump. Clearly, the Alabama result begins to change the calculation for both House and Senate races. And, of course, some of the Republican problems in Alabama have not gone away. In spite of his stunning loss, Steve Bannon continues to recruit anti-Republican establishment candidates and the party’s Trump divisions are affecting races, such as in Arizona and Nevada.

Character Matters

Steve Bannon and Roy Moore did everything possible to nationalize the race as a war against the Washington Post, Mitch McConnell and the D.C. establishment. Trump weighed in with speeches and robo calls attacking Jones as a cipher of “Chuck and Nancy.”

But, they weren’t able to shake the power of character, even with Republicans who would have much preferred a conservative member of their party. If Moore had approached Trump’s 28 percent win in November 2016, he would have had a 360,000-vote advantage instead of losing by 21,000. The Fox News exit poll reported 49 percent of Alabama voters thought the sexual misconduct allegations were “true,” and they supported Jones 91 percent to 7 percent (44 percent believed “not true” and supported Moore 92 percent to 6 percent).

Trump’s Low Approval Rating Hurts Even in the Deep South

Trump’s national approval rating is at 37 percent, and a weak 48 percent among the voters of Alabama (CNN). He not only couldn’t pull Moore over the finish line, in fact, his polarizing personality helped rouse often hard-to-motivate Democratic constituents. The Fox News exit poll showed the limits of Trump’s influence. More people had a “very unfavorable” view of Trump (40 percent) than “very favorable” (35 percent), and his strongest disapprovers gave Jones a massive share of the vote (95 percent).

Trump brought out the opponents in droves. Jones carried blacks (93 percent to 6 percent), younger voters (62 percent to 36 percent) and women (55 percent to 43 percent). As the NBC News exit poll showed, 29 percent of the vote was African Americans, exceeding Barack Obama’s performance in Alabama in 2012. “Democrats turned out to vote, especially those who were opposed to President Trump” (NBC News).

Republicans Losing Middle

Even more ominous for Republicans in the Alabama vote was the loss of self-described independent and moderate voters, both significant blocs who will be especially important in upcoming congressional elections in swing states and district battles. Jones carried moderates by two-to-three-to-one, and they represented one-third to two-fifths of the electorate.

Democrats’ Lessons

Before Nancy Pelosi starts measuring the drapes in the Speaker’s Office, the party needs to carefully observe the strengths and limits of their recent wins in New Jersey, Virginia and now Alabama. Many of the fights next November will not be in districts with a 30 percent minority share of the electorate. Alabama swing voters did not vote for the party policy positions, but against Moore, which was fortunate for Democrats.

Leaders of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing are as determined and anti-establishment as Bannon. Recruiting candidates who do not pass every party litmus test will be a necessary task for many swing states and districts. Democrats haven’t exceled at this since the early 2000s when now Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel led the effort.

But, as 2018 begins, Democrats have just received a powerful burst of energy, which if well managed, should give them the House.

Floyd Ciruli

Floyd Ciruli

Floyd Ciruli is a veteran pollster and noted political analyst based in Denver. He is the director of the Crossley Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Denver's Josef Korbel School of International Studies and is an adjunct professor teaching public opinion and foreign policy. Read Ciruli's blog at www.fciruli.blogspot.com