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Why Is Roy Moore Back In Front? Time And Trump Are Probably Helping

Republican Roy Moore appears to have pulled back into a lead in Alabama’s special Senate election. Moore had lost ground in the polls after allegations of child molestation and sexual misconduct were leveled against him starting on Nov. 9. But three new polls out this week — from Change Research, Emerson College and JMC Analytics — have Moore leading Democrat Doug Jones by 5 to 6 percentage points.

Latest Alabama Senate polls show Moore ahead

Surveys taken after accusations of sexual misconduct against Roy Moore were first reported by The Washington Post on Nov. 9

POLLSTER DAYS SINCE ACCUSATIONS DOUG JONES ROY MOORE JONES MARGIN
Opinion Savvy 0 46% 46% 0
Gravis Marketing 1 46 48 -2
Change Research 2 40 44 -4
Emerson College 2 40 49 -9
JMC Analytics 2 48 44 +4
Strategy Research 4 43 49 -6
Fox News 6 50 42 +8
Gravis Marketing 6 47 42 +5
Change Research 7 46 43 +3
Strategy Research 12 45 47 -2
Emerson College 18 47 53 -6
Change Research 18 44 49 -5
JMC Analytics 19 44 49 -5

Jones jumped out in front of Moore in three polls completed six or seven days after news of the allegations first broke, but he hasn’t led in a single survey since that point.

Why has Moore bounced back? It’s hard to know for sure, but there are a couple of plausible explanations.

First: time. As the 2016 campaign demonstrated, a scandal’s biggest effect on a race can be limited to the weeks following the revelations. Some scandal-hit candidates plummet in the polls, then recover a bit.1 We’re now nearly three weeks removed from the initial accusations and follow-up claims. And according to Google Trends data2 tracking how often Alabamians were searching about Moore after the scandal broke, interest in the story has waned.

Even seven days after the initial allegations (when Jones hit his polling peak), Alabamians were Googling Moore at relatively high levels. From Day Eight onward, however, search volume dropped to less than half — and at times less than one-sixth — of its peak.

Without the allegations against Moore front-and-center, Alabamians may be falling back on their partisan affiliation. Polls conducted before the allegations became public generally gave Moore an edge of between 5 to 10 percentage points. The most recent surveys show his lead at the bottom end of that range.

Second: Moore got a quasi-endorsement from President Trump. Perhaps Trump’s plea is rallying Republicans to Moore’s side. Although he didn’t explicitly re-endorse Moore, Trump bashed Jones, tying him to national Democrats, and noted that Moore denied the allegations. That’s a far cry from other national Republicans, such as Senate Majority Mitch McConnell, who pulled his support for Moore.

Trump’s statements may partly explain why his voters have moved so strongly toward Moore in the past two weeks. According to Change Research, Moore led Jones by a 59 percentage point margin3 among Trump voters six days after the initial allegations broke. Moore’s advantage jumped to 71 points among them in Change Research’s most recent poll. Likewise, Moore’s margin over Jones among those who currently approve of Trump’s job performance rose from 66 points in JMC Analytics’s previous survey to 80 points in its survey taken this week.

As long as the vast majority of Trump backers go for Moore, it’ll be difficult for Jones to win. Trump won Alabama by 28 percentage points in 2016 and still has a positive net approval rating in the state. Jones’s only real shot in such a situation is for a decisive edge in turnout. Of course, exceptionally low turnout among Trump voters is possible given the allegations and the timing of the election, and there does seem to be some relationship between the candidate pollsters have ahead and the predicted partisanship of those who will turn out to vote.

Indeed, it’s tough to tell who exactly will turn out in an off-year December special election involving a deeply flawed Republican candidate. It’s additionally difficult to know how or if voter sentiment may change in the final two weeks of the campaign, especially given how much it has shifted in the past few weeks.

But for now, it does seem that Moore is in a better position to win than he was just a week ago.

Footnotes

  1. Of course, there’s no guarantee of that. Todd Akin’s poll numbers never fully recovered after his comments about “legitimate rape” in the 2012 Missouri Senate election.

  2. A value of 100 for a day indicates that a term was searched most on that day during the period. A 50 indicates that a term was searched half as much on that day as during the peak for the period. A 0 means the term was searched at less than 1 percent on that day than the peak during the period.

  3. Without leaners.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

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