For political observers who have been watching the weird dynamics of the race to replace Jeff Sessions in the U.S. Senate with a sort of sick fascination for months, it may be hard to keep in mind how disinclined voters may be to show up to determine the fate of Roy Moore and Doug Jones.
Many voters do not participate in any non-presidential elections. Even fewer vote in off-year elections. And off-year special elections are really the pits when it comes to turnout, barring some crazy-high investments by parties and candidates (such as those made in the Sixth Congressional District of Georgia earlier this year). And a special election during the holiday season? That’s really poison.
So despite all of the national interest in the Senate race, Alabama secretary of State John Merrill is not expecting a lot of actual voters, which has actually been the case through this election:
Merrill said that his initial expectation of turnout as high as 25 percent of registered voters has shifted to the 18-to-20 percent range, meaning that nearly a quarter million fewer ballots might be cast. Eighteen percent of the state’s more than 3.3 million voters turned out for the August 15 primary election while 14 percent voted in the September 26 GOP runoff.
The two campaigns are struggling with this reality. Democrat Doug Jones has chosen the expensive route of heavy TV advertising aimed at increasing Republican doubts about Roy Moore. So while his ads might persuade some swing voters (particularly those not familiar with the judge’s crazy views on policy matters) and encourage some Democrats that he’s viable, their obvious purpose is to drive down turnout among voters who would otherwise support the Republican nominee in this heavily-Republican state. Team Jones is counting on a lot of conservatives who probably don’t know what to think about Moore’s alleged behavior toward very young women in malls and restaurants back in the day spending December 12 putting in their own time at the malls buying presents.
The turnout imperative also explains Moore’s own strategy of pounding Jones on that hottest of hot-button topics for the kind of conservatives he needs to bestir: abortion. If this was a normal general-election campaign with an emphasis on persuasion of the undecided, rather than mobilization of partisans and ideologues, Team Moore might be reluctant to bring up abortion, since even in Alabama, their candidate’s position is at least as controversial as Jones’s standard-brand pro-choice viewpoint. Moore belongs to the Personhood Movement, which would, from the moment an ovum is fertilized, invest that potential human life with all the constitutional protections accorded to full-grown people. That proposition was soundly rejected in 2011 by the voters of Mississippi, a state that, if anything, is more culturally conservative than Alabama. Moore is also uncomfortably close to anti-abortion activists who have advocated violence against providers.
But it’s precisely voters who share Moore’s extremist conservative leanings who are his target. And so his and his surrogates’ rhetoric on abortion has become quite uninhibited. One speaker at a Moore campaign event — following an attack by the judge’s wife, Kayla, on Jones’s support for medically necessary late-term abortions — said: “We shouldn’t be able to suck a child’s brains out at the moment before birth.” And Moore supporters have not hesitated to address the moral quandary of conservative voters who are troubled by the sexual-predator allegations. Here’s The Federalist’s D.C. McAllister being very direct:
I’d rather have a hypocrite who will stop the murder of millions of babies than a virginal man who leads countless to the slaughter.
The not-so-subliminal message the Moore campaign is making to people who basically share his anti-abortion views is: How dare you sit on your butt watching movies on the Hallmark Channel when you could go vote and save the babies?
It’s unclear whether it’s this sort of appeal, the president’s supportive tweets, or simply old partisan habits emerging, but conservative voters are slowly returning to the judge’s column. A Change Research poll earlier this week showing Moore erasing a Jones lead and forging a five-point lead of his own offers this explanation:
What has changed? The largest difference is turnout: many Republicans who ten days ago said they might not vote, now say they plan to show up on Election Day and vote for Moore. In mid-November, 82% of those who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 said they would “definitely” vote on December 12; that number has climbed to 88%. Additionally, Moore has made some gains with his base: his 91–5 lead with them ten days ago has grown to a 93–4 edge. In mid-November, 10% of voters had planned to cast a write-in vote; that number has dropped to 7%.
In a close low-turnout election like the one on December 12, it doesn’t take a lot of movement to make the difference between victory and defeat. Moore is gambling that the mother of all emotional issues for social conservatives will do the trick, and overwhelm minds and hearts in that narrow but strategic slice of the Alabama electorate that hasn’t totally dismissed the allegations against the judge, but doesn’t want to vote for a godless liberal. He’d better hope the voters he’s trying to get to the polls don’t have second thoughts when they go to the mall.