Ratings Change: Alabama Senate Moves to Toss-up

November 14, 2017 · 4:34 PM EST

Roy Moore is testing a once-hypothetical question: What would it take for a Democrat to win a statewide race in Alabama?

Under normal circumstances, Alabama would elect a Republican to Senate, even a candidate as polarizing as Moore. But the situation changed when The Washington Post reported allegations of past sexual misconduct. This is no longer a normal election. 

It’s easy to miss how extraordinary the situation is today. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Republican Majority Leader of the Senate, and his aligned-super PAC have disavowed their nominee with a month to go before the Dec. 12 election. 

The loss of support from GOP leadership in Washington alone isn’t critical. Moore won the primary and subsequent runoff without them, and he likely didn’t need their help to win the general before the recent round of stories. Vocal opposition from “the Establishment” could actually embolden Moore’s anti-establishment supporters, but could also dampen enthusiasm from GOP voters who were previously wary of Moore’s brand of social conservatism. 

It’s important to note that Republicans outside of Alabama are more incensed than Republicans within The Yellowhammer State. And Democrats point out that the national media coverage differs from local coverage, which portrays the allegations in a more partisan light. But limited public polling demonstrates that this race is closer than it was a week ago.

Right now, there is enough data to support a scenario where either candidate wins. 

For example, the recent JMC Analytics poll that had Doug Jones leading Moore, 48-44 percent, also showed a Democratic candidate leading the generic ballot 47-45 percent. That could mean voters were using the generic ballot as a proxy for the subsequent ballot test when each candidate was named, or that the sample was too Democratic for a state that Trump won 63-35 percent, underestimating Moore’s support.

Jones and Moore were even at 46 percent in the Nov. 9 Opinion Savvy (IVR) poll. Notably, Jones received 37 percent of the white vote, which is right around what sources had previously told us a Democrat would need to get elected statewide. 

While the state favors GOP candidates, there should have been some structural concerns about the race, from a Republican perspective, prior to the Post story considering Jones had the television airwaves to himself for a month. While Moore has nearly universal name identification, Jones had the rare opportunity to define himself in a high-profile race before his opponents started attacking him.

Moore is now up with a contrast ad, at low levels, but Republicans likely now need to discredit Jones as an alternative for voters who are turned off by Moore. But since the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Senate Leadership Fund have renounced their nominee, any attacks on Jones would likely have to come from the Moore campaign.

A silver lining for Republicans is that the Post story published a month before the election, giving them enough time to cultivate excuses for Republicans to turnout to vote for Moore, specifically not helping New York Sen. Chuck Schumer get one seat closer to a majority and labeling Jones as the pro-choice candidate.

There are lots of scenarios being thrown around, but many of them unlikely, including: Moore dropping out, state central committee disqualifying Moore, GOP Gov. Ivey rescheduling the election after Sen. Luther Strange resigns, and write-in candidacies by Strange or Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The latter, with Moore still running and on the ballot, would likely allow Jones to win with a plurality of the vote because Republicans would split voters in the center and on the right.

There is also some discussion in GOP circles about what President Donald Trump will do when he returns from Asia. The President has been largely silent on the Alabama race since the runoff. But his support for Strange in the primary didn’t change the outcome, so interjecting himself into this race might not make a difference anyway. 

One of the biggest questions is turnout. Will Republican voters who never supported Moore show up to the polls? Can Democrats turnout their voters, particularly African Americans and white voters who supported Strange, in an oddly-timed election two weeks before Christmas, especially considering the campaign had to build a Democratic turnout operation from scratch? Allies of Jones believe his record, including prosecuting the KKK bombers who killed four African-American girls in a Birmingham church in 1963, will help him receive more votes from African Americans than a typical 63-year-old white guy. 

When it became clear after the primary that Moore could be the GOP nominee, we moved the Senate race from Solid Republican to Likely Republican as an acknowledgment that the former state supreme court justice’s style and reputation could cause him to underperform. We even went to Alabama to talk to Jones, who had just won the Democratic nomination and had yet to build a ground operation, and assessed whether his campaign was prepared in the event that external factors dropped an opportunity in the Democrats’ laps.

Roy Moore can still win this race, but there is enough uncertainty to move the race to Toss-Up. 

Three weeks is enough time for Moore to regain some political ground but also more time for more reports to surface about Moore’s past. It’s been a wild five days in the Alabama Senate race and there’s no reason to believe there won’t be any twists and turns in the next month.