No matter what the doomsayers say, progresssives should not allow themselves to get unduly pessimistic about Democratic prospects for defeating Roy Moore in Alabama and picking up a U.S. Senate seat. According to Harry Enten’s fivethirtyeight.com post, “Doug Jones Is Just A Normal Polling Error Away From A Win In Alabama,”
A look at all U.S. Senate election polls since 19982 shows that their average error — how far off the polls were from the actual election result — is more than a percentage point higher than the average error in presidential polling. Also, Alabama polls have been volatile, this is an off-cycle special election with difficult-to-predict turnout, and there haven’t been many top-quality pollsters surveying the Alabama race. So even though Moore is a favorite, Democrat Doug Jones is just a normal polling error away from winning. (Or, by the same token, Moore could win comfortably.)
The polls in Alabama have swung back and forth between Moore and Jones over the past month. The Washington Post first reported on allegations against Moore on Nov. 9, and after that, surveys indicated that the race was moving in Jones’s direction. He held an average advantage of 5 percentage points in polls that were taken six or seven days following the story. Since then, polls have Moore ahead by 3 points, on average, although Jones led by 3 points in a Washington Post poll. (That’s the only recent survey that meets FiveThirtyEight’s gold standard.3)
Fair enough. There is not a lot of data to be bullish about there. But certainly it could be worse. Enten adds, “Simply put, Senate polling has not been especially predictive over the past 10 cycles. Among the 2,075 Senate polls in the FiveThirtyEight database that were taken within 21 days of an election, the average error has been 5.1 percentage points. And that has been fairly consistent across cycles. The 2016 Senate polls featured an average error of 5.2 percentage points.”
However, adds Enten, “the chance of a big error may be unusually high in Alabama. Because of the unusual timing of the election, pollsters may have a difficult time determining who is going to turn out to vote.”
Poll analyst Ruy Teixeira notes that, in the Washington Post poll, Jones pulled about 33 percent suppport from Alabama white voters, which is the same percentage another poll analyst Geoffrey Skelley says Jones must receive to win — provided there is a strong African American turnout favoring Jones at least 9-1.
In addition, Moore’s late-breaking gaffe,“I think it [America] was great at the time when families were united — even though we had slavery — they cared for one another…. Our families were strong, our country had a direction.” is the sort of comment that could energize African American voters, and possibly serve as a ‘last straw’ for other voters who may prefer to stay home, vote for the write-in candidate, or even vote for Democrat Doug Jones rather than cast a ballot for Moore. And there is always the possibility that write-in candidate Col. Lee “Hold My Beer” Busby will take a healthier than expected bite from Moore’s tally, energized by a crritical mass of upright conservatives who are embarrassed by Moore’s sleazy record.
That’s a lot of “ifs,” granted. But, overall Dems have done a little better than expected in 2017 special elections. We’re not expecting a blue wave here. But it’s just possible that a majority of Alabama voters on Tuesday will be ready to bring their state into the 21st century.