Alabama Senate Special Election Hinges on African American Turnout

(AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Former Vice President Joe Biden and Democrat Doug Jones walk onstage at a rally on October 3, 2017, in Birmingham, Alabama.

The question hovering over the Alabama Senate contest between Democrat Doug Jones and Republican Roy Moore is whether blacks will turn out to vote in sufficient numbers to give Jones a shot at victory in the December 12 special election less than two weeks before Christmas. The race is a dead heat going into its final week, according to the latest Washington Post poll, and national money has poured into the Democrat’s campaign since Moore was accused of sexual misconduct with teenage girls while working as a 30-something district attorney.   

As a result, the Jones campaign is “well resourced” to both pursue moderate white voters and fund a “robust base consolidation” operation among African Americans, says Montgomery-based Democratic pollster Zac McCrary. To become Alabama’s first Democratic Senator in two decades and the first Democrat elected statewide since 2008, Jones will need “a massive 20-plus margin in Birmingham and surrounding Jefferson County.”

To win, Jones is banking on high turnout among the state’s nearly 900,000 African American voters, who make up 26.6 percent of the electorate. Natalie Davis, professor emerita of political science at Birmingham-Southern College and the Democratic candidate in the 1996 U.S. Senate race, says, “A good robust black turnout should offset the rural white vote that will go to Moore.” 

In a state in which racial identity politics has surged in the Obama-Trump era, with whites fleeing the Democratic Party, the Jones campaign is heartened by polls showing 33 percent of the state’s 2.3 million white voters back Jones, as compared with President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, which won just 15 percent of the white vote in Alabama. But the inroads Jones is making with white voters will only result in a victory if black turnout is actually strong.

At the heart of this conundrum is whether the Jones campaign is doing enough Obama-style boots on the ground, phone calling, and text organizing to supplement the traditional turnout mechanism of the Alabama Democratic Conference (ADC), the state’s most powerful African American political organization. For decades, the Birmingham-based organization has distributed printed leaflets, known as “the Ballot,” during the final week of statewide campaigns, telling African Americans to vote for Democrats.

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, in an effort to boost black voter turnout, Jones made appearances with Representative Terri Sewell, the state’s first black congresswoman, who represents the African American neighborhoods in Birmingham, Montgomery, and Tuscaloosa, as well as the poor, rural, and heavily African American Black Belt area of western Alabama.

Efforts to register African Americans have succeeded, but many blacks fail to vote on Election Day. Because of the rough economy following the Great Recession, one Democratic official says the enthusiasm generated by the 2008 Obama campaign has vanished. “People in the African American community are sad and depressed. They don’t turn out because they don’t think things will change.” They think the Republicans are “just going to steal the election.”

Some African American leaders worry that black turnout will disappoint. In the heart of the Black Belt, Perry County Commissioner Albert Turner Jr. says that due to the salacious charges against Moore and attention the race has drawn from the national media, people are much more aware of this race compared with past special elections. On the one hand, “People know they have a chance, that Jones could win and so that has created a sense of excitement that usually would not exist,” Turner says. On the other, “The Jones campaign is not well organized in the black community. It seems … that they are relying solely on media and not the ground game,” and this may be the campaign’s Achilles’ heel. 

Last-minute GOTV efforts typically “get a loss,” Turner explains. “You can’t give me $5,000 to $6,000 a weekend before the election and say, ‘Maximize the black vote.’ You need to do it like Obama did with organizers on the ground for months in each county. We have 9,300 citizens in Perry County and 7,000 voters, but 40 to 50 percent of the voting-age population leaves town every day to work in Tuscaloosa, an hour away, and when they get off work at 5 or 6 in the evening they may not make it back in time to vote. If you are organized, you can sign those people up to vote absentee, and you can sign up the college kids who are home for Thanksgiving the same way.” Turner says the Jones campaign lacks a sufficient ground game. “If they expect an Obama-size black turnout for Jones, they are going to be gravely disappointed.”

On October 3, progressive insurgent Randall Woodfin, a 36-year-old city attorney, defeated incumbent Birmingham Mayor William Bell by an impressive 18-point margin—59 percent to 41 percent after a year-long intensive ground operation. A veteran of the Hillary Clinton campaign, Woodfin hired Daniel Deriso, a veteran of the Bernie Sanders campaign, as his field organizer and together they built a sophisticated, cutting-edge ground operation. Savvy Democrats express hope that the Woodfin campaign’s expertise and excitement has spilled over to the Jones effort.  

Mayor Woodfin has endorsed Jones and the campaign has hired some of Woodfin’s organizers in Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, but the “Jones campaign is not doing the same amount of outreach for as long as we did,” Deriso says.

In the Woodfin race, organizers went door to door handing out literature and gathering phone numbers. “For a real get-out-the-vote effort, you have to knock on every door, make every phone call, and text every person possible,” says Deriso, with the latter being one of the best ways to do voter outreach, especially among younger voters. It’s quick, less intrusive than a phone call, and in the age of smartphones, the perfect way to reach millennials. 

In the final four days, the Woodfin campaign texted everyone in its database using the app for mass texting used by the Sanders campaign. “Almost everyone who voted, we contacted,” Deriso says. “We know this because we cross-checked out database with the secretary of state’s records after the election. We had 11,500 people vote who had never voted in a municipal election before and we won by 7,000 votes. We won in every single demographic: black, white, Hispanic; young, old; renter, and homeowner.” 

There is little doubt Democratic activists are energized and working hard for a Jones victory. In Tuscaloosa, University of Alabama School of Law professor Bryan Fair says, “People are working tirelessly around the state to see that there is a great turnout. They are phone banking, canvassing, and speaking out on behalf of Doug. People know this is rare opportunity to win a Senate seat.” The African American professor says Jones is passionate about equality and justice and that this is part of his appeal to the African American electorate. “If the election were decided on the merits, Doug would win in a landslide.”   

State Representative Christopher England, who is African American, believes many who vote on December 12 will see the election as a referendum on President Donald J. Trump. England says he sees an upsurge of engagement among black voters, especially in the metropolitan areas, as a backlash against the president. “Even if you wanted to ignore him you couldn’t,” England says. “If he hasn’t offended you, you have not been paying attention.”   

Chris Barrineau, Woodfin’s fundraiser, predicts a close election. He says he sees a lot of similarities between 2012 (when Roy Moore ran for Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court and won with 51.8 percent of the vote; presidential candidate Mitt Romney won the state by 60.5 percent) and 2017. “People are very motivated against Roy Moore,” Barrineau says. “I think you’ll see a big turnout among millennials for Jones and high turnout among African Americans in the Birmingham area.”

Jones’s television advertising and much of his campaign messaging has been targeted toward white suburban voters with a pitch that he is reasonable, will represent all Alabamians, and is a man of integrity. Professor Davis indicates that “this race will be won or lost in the suburbs and by suburban women.” The sexual misconduct charges against Moore have fractured the white Republican vote. “My grandmother was a pro-segregationist and she says this will be the first time she votes for a Democrat since George Wallace,” says one Democratic active in state politics. “She says she can’t vote for a pedophile. There are other Republicans like her.”

While it is splintering of the white Republican vote that puts the election in play for Jones, it is his performance among African Americans that is the surest path to victory. 

On November 30, Joe Reed, 79, vice chair of the ADC, was busy putting the final touches on the guide ballot. Reed says the Ballot for the Jones race is going to the printer and soon will be distributed in black churches, barber shops, beauty shops, and shopping centers across 66 of Alabama’s 67 counties where the ADC has long-standing organizational structures. The message to black voters is simple: “Vote the Ballot.” How robust the ADC effort is depends on how much the Jones campaign has budgeted for the conference’s turnout operation. Reed would not reveal how much the Jones campaign has put into the pot. “If we had $600,000, we could do a very comprehensive effort around the state. But we never have that much money.” 

For the Jones Senate race, Reed will only say, “We are going to have what we have had for some other statewide races.” How big the checks are that Reed and the ADC mail out to the county organizations depends on the size of the check that a particular campaign decides to write. After the election, Reed says the numbers are public. He predicts that black voter turnout come December 12 will be “a little heavier” than in some statewide elections but “not an Obama-type thing.”

A past statewide candidate echoes Reed: “You pay for the black vote and it works. The Democrats know how to get out the black vote in Alabama; they know where it is and how to turn it out. How robust the turnout will be depends on how much the campaign is willing to pay for it. The GOTV in the black community has real costs; it takes money for vans, voter contact, and phone banks.” But Perry County Commissioner Turner claims the traditional method is limited; instead of establishing their own GOTV efforts in black neighborhoods, statewide campaigns are in the habit of handing over black turnout to the ADC with an attitude of “I’ll just take what they give.”

One Democratic insider says if you could combine the ADC approach—pioneered by Richard Arrington Jr., elected Birmingham’s first African American mayor in 1979—with the Woodfin-Obama-Sanders style ground operation, then you would have an extremely powerful turnout machine that could alter the current dynamics of Alabama’s politics.

Turner says if a Democrat can secure one-third of the white vote and drive up black turnout by using the methods utilized by the Woodfin campaign, then Democrats can again be competitive at the state level. But when campaigns fall into the trap of dropping a load of cash on the ADC and the Citizens Coalition in Jefferson County with only two weeks to go, a modern GOTV operation is not possible. There’s more vote to be had if Democrats invested resources to organize ground operations early in the campaign. “You have to organize on the ground in the counties,” Turner says.   

In Turner’s eyes, Doug Jones has good social media, good television and radio, but he’s missing a key component. He says, “You can herd the cows to the barn with social media and television, but without a strong ground game, you’ve got no one to drive them home.” Turner says local organizations like his own in Perry County are trying to step into the gap but can only do so much. “We can’t make a grand effort because we can’t use up all of our resources.”

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