Doug Jones' Improbable Path to Victory

Yesterday I published a USA Today column on strategy used by Doug Jones to win the Alabama senate race. Here I will lay out what needs to happen today for Jones to pull off a victory. First, I want to clear up some of the confusion regarding the polling. The polls are all over the place because of methodological reasons. Fivethirtyeight does a great explaining this, so I recommend you read their post. The long and the short of it is that the turnout model used to weight the poll determines whether Moore or Jones win. For Jones to win, turnout needs to look like 2016’s turnout, something that has never happened in a non-presidential election cycle, let alone in a special election in December in Alabama.

Here’s what Doug Jones needs to happen to win:

1. Doug Jones needs to siphon off at least 20% of Republican voters. In the Fox News poll released yesterday, Jones beats Moore by 10pts but the poll was weighted to a hypothetical turnout that greatly favors Democrats. Weighted for “normal” Alabama turnout, Moore wins. A key to Jones’ victory is to actually flip Republican voters, something Hillary also tried to do in 2016, but failed. Too be sure, Doug Jones is not Hillary Clinton. Republican voters don’t have a long term hatred for Doug Jones like they did for Hillary. Conversely though, the Alabama electorate presents a 14pt advantage for Republicans so Jones needs to flip far more Republicans to win than Hillary would have needed in 2016. Normally, about 90% of Republican voters vote for their party’s nominee. In the case of this election, Jones really needs that percentage to decrease at least 20 points. There is some evidence of this in the Fox News poll, which shows just 81% of Republicans supporting Moore. But the remainder aren’t breaking for Jones either. Jones is picking up but 11% of the missing 19% of Republican vote. The rest remain undecided.

2. Along with converting some Republican voters Doug Jones needs either historically high turnout OR historically low turnout to win. In short, the electorate needs to do something it doesn’t normally do to produce conditions favorable for a Jones’ victory. High or low, ultimately what needs to happen is Democrats will need to dramatically increase their share of the electorate for Jones to win. For example, In Virginia’s recent gubernatorial election Democrat Ralph Northam crushed his Republican opponent Ed Gillespie by 9 points. And he did it because the Democratic share of the electorate increased by 5 points over its 2013 share (from 36% to 41%). Northam still lost Independents and didn’t covert Republicans, but won in a landslide because partisan voters turned out in droves and swamped their Republican counterparts. But Alabama is not Virginia. Democrats will need to increase their share of the electorate by more than 5% to offset the advantage Republicans enjoy in Alabama.

Keep in mind, improbable is not the same as impossible. In the 2016 election, Donald Trump had a nearly impossible path to 270 Electoral College votes. For him to win the election he needed four things to all fall into place, including one which required a major departure from “normal” voting behavior. Trump needed turnout of white working class voters to increase, turnout of African Americans to decrease, and Independent to prefer him over Clinton despite running a campaign plagued by scandal and controversy. But he also needed something else to happen, something that hadn’t happened in decades. He needed a significant portion of potential Hillary Clinton voters to defect from the Democratic Party nominee and instead cast ballots for third party nominees or write-in ballots for Bernie Sanders. And that is exactly what happened. In the 2016 election the average two-party defection rate was more than double the normal rate, especially in critical Midwest states like Wisconsin which saw their defection rates jump from 1.5% to 6.5%. In races decided by 1% or less, defection rates determined the winner.

Although a Doug Jones’ victory in today’s Alabama Senate election is improbable, it is not impossible. In a decade of erratic “change” elections and in the wake of the 2016 presidential election the American electorate is volatile and unpredictable and under those conditions, anything is possible.

Rachel Bitecofer is assistant director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University and author of The Unprecedented 2016 Presidential Election. Follow her on Twitter: @RachelBitecofer

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