BIRMINGHAM, Ala. ― Days before Alabama’s special Senate election, Democrat Doug Jones is within striking distance of winning a seat his party hasn’t won in 25 years. But he desperately needs black voters to turn out for him, and he may not have done enough to inspire them.
“Certainly, the clearest path for Jones is to get the African-American share,” said Zac McCrary, a Democratic pollster at Anzalone Liszt Grove Research in Montgomery, Alabama. “It’s deceptively simple arithmetic to see how he gets there.”
Black residents in Alabama overwhelmingly vote Democratic. They make up about 27 percent of the state’s population; white residents make up roughly 69 percent. For Jones to win, he needs black voters to account for at least 25 percent of the electorate on Tuesday. He’d then need to win support from 36 percent of white voters to hit 51 percent of the total vote.
In statewide races since 2008, the black share of Alabama’s electorate has hovered at about 25 percent. If Jones can bump that up to 26 or 27 percent, he’ll need even less of the white vote. The white electorate is a tougher slog for Jones given how Republican the state is, said McCrary, and it gets incrementally harder with each percentage point. In other words, Jones’ best chance at winning is boosting the black share of the electorate by a percentage point or two, rather than trying to increase his share of white votes.
One or two extra percentage points? That doesn’t sound like much. But in reality, it means Jones needs black voters to turn out at levels similar to when they turned out for Barack Obama’s historic presidential win in 2008, when they comprised 28 percent of Alabama’s electorate. And Doug Jones, a 63-year-old white guy who’s never run for office, is no Barack Obama.
Jones’ task doesn’t sound so easy. But this race has been anything but normal, and McCrary, who has been in Alabama politics for more than 15 years, said he thinks Jones can pull off a “historic type of upset” given the crazy confluence of factors in this election.
Those factors include the fact that Jones’ opponent, Republican Roy Moore, is plagued by allegations of sexual misconduct with teenage girls decades ago. Beyond that, Moore, a former state judge twice removed from the bench, has historically been a weak candidate. He lost two bids for governor, and in 2012, when Mitt Romney trounced Obama in Alabama in the presidential election, Moore won just 51 percent of the vote for his court seat.
Meanwhile, Jones, a former U.S. attorney best known for sending Ku Klux Klan members to jail, is running a campaign focused on kitchen table issues and his opposition to Moore’s racist record. His campaign is flush with money, and this race is playing out in the context of a strong political climate for Democrats, who have over-performed in virtually every election since Donald Trump became president.
Even polling suggests the race is a toss-up. Jones is slightly trailing Moore, but in an oddly timed special election in the national spotlight, turnout is hard to predict.
So... what has Jones done for black voters lately?
None of this matters much for Jones if black voters don’t flood the polls. HuffPost spent last week walking the streets of Birmingham ― a city where Jones is campaigning heavily ― asking a dozen or so black residents if they plan to vote and what they think of Jones. The overwhelming response was yes to voting and mild enthusiasm for the Democratic nominee.
“Absolutely,” said Sy Belyeu, 48, when asked if she was supporting Jones. “So many of us did not vote last year because we just knew [Hillary Clinton] was going to win. I don’t want that to happen again.”
Belyeu, a real estate agent and graduate student at the University of Alabama, said she thinks black voters are more focused on the election than the media has depicted. She said everyone she talks to is planning to vote, though it’s not because they love Jones. They’re horrified at the prospect of Moore winning.
“We just don’t look good in the news, you know what I’m saying? It looks like Hicksville,” she said. “There’s a lot of racism, a lot of homophobia. We don’t want to be characterized like that any longer. So there’s definitely a push to get out to vote.”
Courtney Smith and Isaiah Burton, both African-American college students tied up with finals, said they’ve been too busy to pay attention to the election. But both said they’ll probably vote because of pressure from their parents and friends.
“My mom is going to make me go vote. She watches CNN every day. All day,” Smith, 19, said with an eye roll. “She is a forceful person. She’s going to tell me to vote for Doug Jones.”
Roger Herod, 67, said he’s not really following the Senate race, but is planning to vote for Jones because he’s a Democrat. He’s not particularly moved by either candidate, though.
“When you ask a black person about a choice between two white guys, it’s always, well, which one of them are the least of a shyster?” said Herod, a retired merchant seaman. “That’s just the way black people view white politicians. We’re not as dumb as we look. We know you guys are full of it.”
Several people told HuffPost they still don’t know much about Jones aside from his oft-touted 2002 prosecution of the KKK members behind the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963 that killed four black girls and fueled the civil rights movement. Even as they said they plan to vote for Jones, they expressed frustration that that’s all they seem to hear from the Democrat.
“He makes a big play of, ‘I defended the civil rights.’ OK, that’s all well and good,” said Herod. “But I don’t hear anything else from you until it’s time for an election?”
Get used to Jones talking about civil rights.
Jones clearly wants to keep the focus on civil rights through election day. On Friday, Jones’ campaign denounced Moore for saying the last time America was great was during slavery. His campaign also sent out emails this week highlighting Moore’s “questionable remarks and actions on civil rights,” including his effort to keep segregation language in the state’s constitution and his refusal to include a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. next to a Ten Commandments monument in a state judicial building.
Outside pro-Jones groups are piling on too, running ads on Facebook highlighting Moore’s ties to white supremacists.
When you ask a black person about a choice between two white guys, it’s always, well, which one of them are the least of a shyster?” Roger Herod, 67
Jones could alienate black voters if he’s not careful. His campaign circulated a mailer this week that shows a black man with a skeptical look on his face, and the caption, “Think if a black man went after high school girls anyone would try to make him a senator?”
The mailer was a jab at Moore, but it landed with a thud among some in the black community.
“Someone, probably a white man, thought that the image would resonate with black people and motivate them to get out the vote,” fumed Michael Harriot of The Root, an African-American culture website. “It’s as if black people were considering voting for the child molester until some brilliant strategist posited, ‘What if he were black, though?’”
Asked Friday about those criticisms, Jones said only, “That mailer kind of speaks for itself.”
Black residents are also hindered by the state’s record of voter suppression. Alabama does not permit early voting, which has been a key factor for other states in boosting black turnout, and it doesn’t have same-day registration or no-fault absentee voting.
As election day nears, Jones’ campaign has been stepping up its phone calls, radio and cable TV spots, digital ads and direct mail pieces targeting the state’s black community. He has also been sending surrogates into 12 Alabama counties with high concentrations of African-Americans.
Given that Jones has raised more than $10 million since Oct. 1, compared to Moore’s $2 million, he can afford to reach out to hundreds of thousands of black Alabamans who haven’t been active in recent elections.
“Those voters are all going to be touched multiple times, not only to remind them of the election, but of what Jones will do as a senator,” said Giles Perkins, the chairman of Jones’ campaign. “We’re not making choices on mail or calls. We’re doing all of it.”
Jones is also bringing in star power. Influential black national leaders like Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) will be in Alabama this weekend to help with Jones’ final push. Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D), Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) will also campaign with Jones in Birmingham.
Booker was already taking shots at Moore on Friday.
For all of Jones’ efforts, the reality is that this is still Alabama, a deeply conservative state that hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since 1992. And that guy, current Sen. Richard Shelby, has since become a Republican.
But some of Jones’ supporters say that although they usually don’t hold out hope for a Democrat to win, this time, something feels different.
“I’m a pessimist. But I think Jones wins very narrowly,” said Joseph De Sciose, 64, a professional photographer in Birmingham.
He said he’s not basing his prediction on polls or news articles, and he’s not particularly engaged with Jones’ campaign. He’s noticed something more organic happening around town that has caught him by surprise and given him hope that Democrats have an edge.
“There are just so, so many more yards signs for Jones than I’ve ever seen,” said Sciose. “More than I saw even when Obama was running.”