Before this year’s Alabama Senate special election fades into the history books, it might be time to take a second look at the conventional wisdom (much propagated by Republicans who want to write it all off as a fluke) that the sexual allegations against Roy Moore turned a landslide GOP win into a defeat. An Ezra Klein interview with Doug Jones’s media strategist Joe Trippi (yes, that Joe Trippi, famous for his role in the meteoric rise and sudden fall of Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign) supplies a counterargument: Moore was in trouble before the sex scandal broke thanks to his long record of theocratic extremism, which the sex scandal may have actually helped obscure.
Trippi draws attention to one fact that got almost entirely lost after the scandal broke: Moore was already vulnerable. Here’s what he told Klein:
The day before the Washington Post story came out, we were behind by 1 point, 46 to 45. And the day before the election, we were ahead in our own survey by 2 points. We ended up winning by 1.8. So as far as we’re concerned, all those other polls that were all over the place, showing 11-point and 8-point margins, we feel we were always on top of the pulse of what was happening, and it was a dead heat the day before the allegations came out.
What the scandals appear to have done is to shift the discussion from Moore’s record to the more polarized ground of the confidence Alabama Republican voters placed in national media allegations against him:
A lot of what people didn’t like about Moore was the fact that he’d been removed from office twice, the fact that he had started a religious charity and taken a million dollars from it after he’d told everybody he wasn’t making any money on it. Those things were totally knocked off the charts by the allegations. And those other allegations, the other problems that people had with him, cut across party lines.
As voters began to focus on anything, everything other than the fact that Roy Moore is nuttier than a five-pound fruitcake, the dynamics changed, and not always in Jones’s favor:
The key to us having a chance was to detribalize the politics of the state. If Alabama was reacting to the tribal politics of our times, there was no way for us to win. And in a weird way, the allegations created tribalism again. You either believe the charges or you don’t believe the charges. Suddenly, we’re back into Republicans who don’t believe the charges; it’s the media out to get Roy Moore. He’s able to start tribalizing the race. Trump begins coming in with him. And every time that happened, Roy Moore would open a lead.
Trippi goes on to argue that whatever weight you assign to the sexual-misconduct allegations, Moore’s record and Jones’s message of compromise and civility provided an ideal contrast for a Democratic candidate in difficult territory in the Trump era.
I think Trump, even with his own supporters who like him, has created enough hostility and chaos that voters don’t want more of it. They can tolerate it with him, but they don’t want more. I think there is an almost infinite hunger in the country right now for ending the division, the hatred, the hate talk.
Even if Judge Roy had not been accused of trawling the malls and courthouses and restaurants of Alabama in the 1970s looking for vulnerable girls to exploit, everything about the man’s background screamed hostility and chaos. If sexual misconduct is still relatively rare among Republicans, extremism is not. And they may pay a price in the polls next year.