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Six Lessons Democrats Should Learn from Alabama

They can win big next year if they don't screw it up.

Sean McElwee

A scene from Doug Jones's election night celebration. Photo by Nicole Craine/Bloomberg

In an upset that surprised nearly every pundit and election watcher (though not all of us), Doug Jones won Tuesday's Alabama Senate special election by a narrow but definitive margin (50 to 48 percent). Though many pundits were quick to claim this was somehow a victory for the Republican Party or a fluke, this election was far from that. With Democrats increasingly likely to hold most or all of their Senate seats (due to Trump’s unpopularity and incumbency advantage), Democrats need to pick up only two seats to win the Senate. Nevada and Arizona offer them good pickup opportunities, with Tennessee and Texas also possible, depending on the environment. A Democratic Senate could block Donald Trump’s agenda and weaken his ability to ram through unqualified judges.

Here are some key takeaways from the race:

1. Doug Jones Wasn’t Hurt by Being a Progressive

First, though pundits continuously claimed that abortion would drag Doug Jones down, there’s little evidence that for that. As I’ve noted before, Cooperative Congressional Election Studies (CCES) data suggest a majority of Alabamians who are not white evangelicals support abortion choice. Since any Democratic coalition will involve combining voters of color and white non-evangelicals, there’s just not much to gain from being anti-choice. Across the country, individuals who are not white evangelicals support abortion choice 68 percent to 33 percent. In only one state (Utah) in which the majority of individuals who are not white evangelicals oppose choice.

Further, parties are increasingly sorted along the lines of choice, so there is little to gain from moving to the center. The chart below shows the share of respondents from each party who “always” support abortion choice according to the American National Election Studies, which gives respondents four options on supporting abortion choice, from “always” to “never.”

There are other widespread misconceptions about policy: While elites see cutting Social Security as a “moderate” or “centrist” position, voters certainly do not: Only 3 percent of Democrats, 5 percent of independents, and 9 percent of Republicans support cutting Social Security. Meanwhile, 66 percent of Democrats, 61 percent of independents, and 51 percent of Republicans support increasing Social Security, according to the American National Elections Study (the rest said they would keep spending the same).

A pro-choice, pro-immigrant, pro-healthcare, and pro–Social Security politician just won an election in Alabama. There’s no reason Democrats shouldn’t be running these candidates elsewhere.

2. Democrats Need to Fight for Voting Rights

Second, it’s also worth noting that thousands of Alabamians had their voting rights restored and were registered to vote for the election by the NAACP (see this powerful video). Democrats have been slow to realize how central the long-term suppression of voting rights is to their electoral success. According to data from CCES, voters preferred Hillary Clinton 48 percent to 46 percent, while non-voters preferred her 53 percent to 44 percent. Democratic donors, activists, and organizers should invest in ballot initiatives to restore voting rights and pass automatic voter registration across the country.

It’s good to see a rights restoration ballot initiative happening in Florida. Had Democrats been able to travel back in time and do it before the turn of the century, they would have won the 2000, 2004, and possibly the 2016 presidential elections; millions would have Medicaid because they would have won the 2010 gubernatorial election; and Senator Bill Nelson wouldn’t be sweating his 2018 reelection. Better late than never, I suppose. Across the country, Democrats need to understand that no amount of television ads can mobilize people who are legally barred from voting.

3. A Good Campaign Can Turn a Loss into a Win

While campaigns can’t do much to persuade, the best research suggests that they can mobilize their voters. Jones really was able to increase turnout among his key voters, while Moore’s lack of campaign appearances, ads, and get-out-the-vote hurt him. In an election this close, that made the difference. A win like this is impossible without a surge in black voting, and data indicate that black turnout drove a Jones victory. The Democratic Party lost the 2016 election because it did not understand the threat that voter suppression posed to them and did not invest in mobilizing black voters. If Ossoff had mobilized black turnout the way Jones did, he would have probably won his congressional election against Karen Handel.

4. Young Voters Matter

In doing the analysis for my last VICE piece, one thing I noticed is that the trend of young voters being more liberal was pretty consistent across states. Even in a deep-red place like Alabama, the young population leans Democratic. In Alabama, exit polling shows that individuals under 45 overwhelmingly supported Jones, while older voters went strongly for Moore. While it’s plausible exit polls overstate these divides, CCES data suggest that under-45s preferred Clinton 49 percent to 48 percent while over-45s preferred Trump 63 percent to 33 percent. Among only whites, the divide was 30 percent Clinton/66 percent Trump for under-45s, compared with 16 Clinton/82 percent Trump among over-45s.

5. Scandal Will Drag Down Republicans in 2018

Many commentators are treating Roy Moore as a one-off, but it’s unlikely he’ll be the only candidate brought down by the weight of his own controversies. It’s perfectly plausible that a scandal-plagued or incompetent candidate will make it through a Republican primary.

According to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, there are 305 Democratic women running for the House in 2018, compared with only 69 Republican women. There are 201 Democratic women challenging an incumbent, compared with just 26 Republican women. It is likely that the next Republican congressional delegation will have a lower share of women than the current one. That means Republicans face a much higher risk of sexual assault or harassment scandals. The unprecedented corruption of the Trump administration will likely create several more.

On the Democratic side, EMILY’s list will be helping women like Gina Ortiz Jones of Texas and Mai Khanh Tran of California across the finish line. That could very well create a “scandal gap,” between the parties which will likely have massive electoral consequences. In Alabama, women went for Jones 57 percent to 41 percent (men favored Moore 56 to 42, and Moore won white women 34 to 63). If women swing towards Democrats, Republicans will have a difficult time finding a way to gerrymander women voters to maintain their House majority.

6. The Resistance to Trump Is Real

And it shows in the huge turnout differential we saw yesterday. Across the country, Democratic voters are more engaged then they’ve been since the 2008 election of Barack Obama. That means higher quality recruitment, more volunteers, more money, more attention, and higher turnout. It means we’re going to see surprise and unpredictable House losses across the country. Look to Jim Oberstar in 2010. Prior to losing to a first-time Tea Party candidate, the Democrat had won at least 60 percent of the vote in every election since 1992. If 2018 is anything like 2010 in reverse, there will be some major upsets like that. For instance, recent polling suggests that Paul Ryan is within 6 points of his upstart challenger.

The Alabama election, despite its oddities, is a signal of things to come. Trump’s unpopularity and the unpopularity of the Republican tax plan will drag them down in 2018. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is currently targeting 91 GOP-held districts, and while it’s unlikely they’ll win even a majority of these, they only need 24 to win a majority. Primaries will roil the GOP, leading them to put forward unpopular and scandal-plagued candidates.

But Democrats can only win if they seize the moment. That means running progressives who can energize the base, not milquetoast moderates. They need to fight back against the structural white supremacist voter suppression built into American politics that holds them back. They need to energize young voters and invest in getting out the vote. And for fuck’s sake, in a year when female voters will determine the fate of the country, stop running candidates who want to deny women the right to control their own bodies.

Sean McElwee is a researcher and writer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter.