Well before Republican Roy Moore suffered his humiliating defeat last week in deep-red Alabama, Democrats had thought they saw a path to victory in the state’s special Senate election.
Their strategy was to coax turnout among African-American voters to 25 percent of the electorate, with more than 9 in 10 of those voters going for Democrat Doug Jones. The formula also envisioned Jones getting over a third of the white vote, while an unusually high 3 percent of voters, including many Republicans dismayed by Moore, would cast write-in ballots.
Jones did win to become the first Democrat elected to the Senate from Alabama since Richard Shelby in 1992. (Shelby switched parties two years later.)
But Jones’ path to victory didn’t quite follow the road map. He fell slightly short of the target for white votes. Write-ins were less than 2 percent.
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The Democrats overcame those setbacks with a huge African-American surge. Exit polls showed that black voters accounted for at least 28 percent of the total turnout, with 96 percent of them favoring the Democrat. This defied predictions by politicians and the press of a low black turnout in an unusual December election in a state where the African-American vote isn’t usually decisive.
Democrats think the strong showing for Jones among black voters demonstrates a level of political enthusiasm that will endure well after the departure of former President Barack Obama from the political scene.
Republicans, of course, hope it doesn’t. They prefer to think of Alabama as a one-time event pitting a weak Republican against an unusually competitive Democrat. They’re right that some conservatives shunned Moore, an extreme right-winger credibly accused of sexually assaulting teenage girls and who seemed nostalgic for the era of slavery. And that blacks had special reason to admire Jones, a moderate Democrat who was well known as the former U.S. attorney who convicted two Ku Klux Klan terrorists in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four black girls.
But that explanation overlooks another factor: President Donald Trump. Hostility to Trump among black voters is as strong a political motivator as the initial excitement nearly a decade ago about the prospect of electing Obama. In this fall’s NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, 94 percent of African-Americans disapproved of Trump. That’s a record high for a politician.
It’s easy to see why. Five years ago, Trump led the charge among people who claimed falsely that Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. In rhetoric and record, Trump has been the most anti-black president in memory. Some of his top lieutenants, notably his former campaign manager Steve Bannon, are embraced by white nationalists as the champion of their cause. After white supremacists and neo-Nazis rioted in Charlottesville, Va., last summer, Trump declared that there were “very fine people on both sides.” He went out of his way to attack National Football League players, many of them black, who knelt as a social protest during the national anthem.
And he created a voter-fraud commission that’s a thinly veiled effort to provide justification for laws that make it harder for members of minority groups to vote. (The commission hasn’t met since September and is now under investigation by a government watchdog agency.) Many Trump administration proposals for budget and health-care cuts would hit blacks especially hard.
The African-American voting surge was unmistakable in Alabama, but there’s evidence of a similar if less dramatic wave elsewhere. It played a role in the Virginia gubernatorial election in November, the first major post-Obama contest, leading to a bigger-than-expected Democratic blowout.
There are other signs of the Democratic wave. As Democrats were winning in Alabama, Republicans were holding on to a state Senate seat in northwest Iowa by only 10 percentage points. A year earlier, Trump carried the same district by 41 points.
In Alabama, Virginia and elsewhere, younger voters and suburbanites are also swinging Democratic. For Democrats, Trump is the gift that won’t stop giving.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.