Is President Trump about to suffer his biggest electoral setback ever? That’s the question on people’s minds ahead of Tuesday’s Republican primary runoff in Alabama’s special Senate election. Trump’s preferred candidate, Sen. Luther Strange, is facing off against former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore for the seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Moore is the favorite, but not by so much that a Strange win would be … well, strange. (Sorry.) Moore has led in every reliable public poll of the runoff.1
But if you look closely enough, it does seem that Moore’s edge has been declining in the waning days of the primary race. A number of surveys released over the past 10 days have put his lead in the single digits, though polls conducted this past weekend seemed to put Moore 10 percentage points or more ahead of his opponent. Private polls conducted by Strange’s allies show a tighter race. And remember, primary polls are typically less accurate than general election polls.
If Strange is indeed closing the gap, it may be thanks to an onslaught of TV ads against Moore. Outside groups, such as the Senate Leadership Fund, a group allied with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have poured millions of dollars into the race on Strange’s behalf. Moore, meanwhile, has received considerably fewer contributions and less outside support.
Strange could also be benefiting from Trump’s support. While Trump endorsed Strange before the initial primary on Aug. 15, that backing was mostly confined to tweets. This past Friday, however, Trump staged a rally with Strange in Alabama. (However, at one point during the rally, Trump said he may have made a mistake in endorsing Strange.) Given that Trump’s approval rating among the Republican electorate in Alabama is about 80 percent, it’s possible that Trump’s rally could have given Strange a potentially game-changing boost ahead of Tuesday’s vote.
It’s also possible, however, that the president’s efforts will be for naught. Polling suggests that voters know about Trump’s endorsement but are still going for Moore. Alabama voters seem to be in an anti-incumbency mood. Strange was appointed to his seat by disgraced former Gov. Robert Bentley, who resigned after he was embroiled in a sex scandal, and the ad campaign by the Senate Leadership Fund may remind voters that Strange has also been endorsed by McConnell, who has had more than his share of dust-ups with Trump.
Moore, for his part, seems to fit the Trump brand better than Strange. Like Trump, Moore has a history of fighting the establishment — he even went so far as to challenge the incumbent Republican governor in a 2006 primary. Moore’s anti-establishment history may be why Sarah Palin and ex-Trump administration members Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka have endorsed him. The Moore-Trump comparisons aren’t perfect: Moore is best defined as a religious conservative who outperforms among evangelical voters; Trump’s populism was not defined by religiosity. Still, polling has generally showed that Moore is doing best among voters who are the biggest fans of Trump.
Perhaps the biggest question for Tuesday is what happens to voters who cast a ballot for Rep. Mo Brooks in the first round. Brooks finished third in the primary with 20 percent to Moore’s 39 percent and Strange’s 33 percent, and only the top two finishers advanced to the runoff. Brooks, who was attacked by the Senate Leadership Fund during the first round, has endorsed Moore in the runoff. Barring a large increase in turnout from the first round, Strange likely needs to bring in the lion’s share of Brooks’s voters to win the runoff. That’s probably why Trump’s Friday night rally was held in Madison County, which is in Brooks’s 5th Congressional District and is home to the largest share of non-Moore, non-Strange voters in the first round of the primary.
To give you an idea of whether Moore is maintaining his advantage in the runoff, I’ve created the following scrollable table. The results will come in by county tonight, but who’s winning each county isn’t a great indicator of who’s winning statewide because Moore and Strange have different geographic bases of support. If Moore is winning Henry County but only by a few percentage points, for example, he’s probably losing statewide; he won by 39 percentage points there in Round 1. So we subtracted out Moore’s statewide margin in the first round (6 points) to generate a set of benchmarks below that imagine a tied Moore-Strange race statewide and show how that might look in county-by-county results. In Henry County, for instance, the benchmark is 33 points. If Moore is beating these benchmarks in most counties, then chances are, he’ll win the runoff.
How well Moore needs to do in each county to win the runoff
Share of vote Moore and Strange won in the Aug. 15 primary and how well Moore needs to do to maintain his statewide advantage, by county
||MOORE BENCHMARK TO WIN▲▼
To maintain his lead from the first round, Moore will need to continue to rack up huge margins in rural areas. Specifically, he’ll need to do well in the southeast corner of the state, in counties like Geneva and Houston. Strange, meanwhile, will hope to cut down on Moore’s rural advantage and rack up huge margins of his own in urban areas such as Jefferson and Madison counties.
Of course, whoever wins on Tuesday will still need to win a Dec. 12 general election against Democrat and former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones. Normally, that would be a fait accompli in deep-red Alabama. No Democrat has won a Senate election in the state in 25 years, and Trump beat Hillary Clinton there by 28 percentage points in 2016.
Indeed, either Moore or Strange would be favored against Jones, though perhaps not by as much as you might think. Trump’s approval rating in Alabama is above 50 percent, and two Emerson College general election polls have both Republicans leading Jones. But Emerson’s polling has been mixed. The group’s most recent poll gave Moore a 22 percentage point lead and Strange a 13 point advantage over Jones. Their survey earlier this month however, put Moore and Strange ahead by less than 5 points. That same poll found Trump’s approval rating at just 52 percent, a significant dropoff from the 62 percent of the vote he earned while running against Clinton.
Jones’s odds are probably better if Moore ends up as the Republican nominee. Moore has a history of making controversial comments, including saying that homosexuality should be illegal. He’s also been removed from his job at the Alabama Supreme Court twice for disregarding higher court rulings. Moore’s past actions and words may not have hurt him much in the primary, but a general election is a different ballgame. Moore’s controversial past may be why he won election to the state supreme court in 2012 by just 4 percentage points. That same year, Republican Mitt Romney beat Democrat Barack Obama by 22 percentage points in Alabama. In other words, Moore has a history of undershooting the presidential lean of the state.
Alabama is a red state, so Moore is a favorite on Tuesday and would be the favorite in December. But he could also plausibly lose either race.