Special to this web site by Quin Hillyer;

Completely setting aside the question of which of the two Republican candidates in Alabama’s special election would make a better U.S. Senator, the question repeatedly has arisen as to whether either one of them could actually lose in a general election to Democratic nominee Doug Jones.

After due consideration, my answer is: Not likely — but slightly more likely for Jones to win if his opponent is Roy Moore than if it is Luther Strange. So, if you aren’t keen on either candidate (or are equally keen on both), but your major concern is keeping an extra vote in the closely divided Senate on behalf of conservative/Republican policies, then Strange appears at least a marginally better bet.

First, to be clear, the only polling data I’ve seen on this question indicates the general election might be unusually tight by recent Alabama standards, but that neither Strange nor Moore is demonstrably weaker against Jones than the other one is. In that poll, one led Jones by 3.5 point and the other by 3.6 — an entirely insignificant difference.

That said, two considerations lead me to believe Moore is slightly more vulnerable to Jones than Strange is. The first is past electoral performance; the second, much more complicated (and perhaps counter-intuitive in this case), is voter intensity/enthusiasm.

The first is simple: Moore has lost badly in two previous primary elections (showing at least some concern, even among Republican voters, about his desirability in an office other than judge), and won by a far narrower margin than other Republicans did in his most recent general election. Strange, on the other hand, won his last two general election campaigns by wide margins commensurate with those of Republicans running in other races at the time — and the one he lost,  in 2006, was by an excruciatingly small margin, against a storied Alabama name (Jim Folsom, Jr.)  in a historically terrible year for Republicans nationwide. This indicates that under ordinary circumstances, Strange is seen by a majority of voters as a fairly generic, and thus eminently supportable, Alabama Republican. Moore, on the other hand, clearly cannot attract as broad a base (although he perhaps has a deeper one) as most Republicans, because (rightly or wrongly), he tends to be less supported, or more opposed, by professionals and suburbanites who otherwise vote (in Alabama at least) for the GOP.

In politics, past performance certainly isn’t always exactly predictive, but for well-known candidates (ones not running a first race) it tends to be a fairly reliable indicator of future vote-getting potential. Plenty of other contextual considerations apply, of course, but a candidate who has never attracted a certain cultural subset isn’t likely to suddenly begin attracting that subset. Moore has run four times statewide without attracting suburban professionals, and isn’t likely to change that performance.

Now we come to the second consideration: voter enthusiasm. Here, interestingly enough, the enthusiasm gap may run in the opposite direction in this general election than it is running in the Republican primary. In other words, it may run work not in favor of, but against, Moore.

How so? Well, as noted before, it is counter-intuitive.

From the day qualifying for this race closed, I’ve told anyone who would listen that specifically because of voter enthusiasm, Moore will likely be the Republican nominee, and that, if anything, his primary ballot performance would actually outstrip his pre-election polling margins. This is because primaries tend to be low-turnout affairs, especially when they are “special elections” at times of the year when Alabamans are not accustomed to voting — and in low-turnout elections, the candidates with the most enthusiastic and committed supporters, and the best organized groups of supporters, usually win. Many of Moore’s backers consider him a hero. They see him not as just another politician, but as a uniquely noble figure. Their enthusiasm/intensity is very, very high. When less-attentive voters fail to go to the polls in a primary or special election, the significantly higher turnout (in percentage terms) among the natural backers of the intensity-catalyzing candidate makes a huge difference. Many of Moore’s voters would go to the polls even if they had to drive through a tropical storm to get there. Supporters of more conventional candidates, such as Strange, just won’t.

This is especially true when a candidate is well organized through churches and social media, as Moore was.

History bears this out. In his 2012 comeback, pre-election pollsters said Moore was in a tight three-way race with two well known, well respected, well financed opponents. Instead, Moore blew away his competitors, winning with more than 50 percent of the vote in the first primary and thus taking the nomination without even need of a runoff.

The very next year, the enthusiasm and Moore’s very organization ran with Dean Young in the special-election primary for an open congressional seat. Pre-election polling showed a fairly tight three-way race for second, behind Bradley Byrne, with Young, Chad Fincher and I all within the margin of error. But on Election Day, Young garnered nearly double the percentage indicated by the pre-election polling, easily earning the runoff spot (before losing to Byrne in a high-turnout runoff).

The Young/Moore forces again had shown that in low-turnout elections, their super-committed supporters can easily carry the day.

So why am I saying that voter intensity actually may disfavor Moore in a general election against Jones? Because the general election will be a national obsession, with huge amounts of attention and a far higher level of turnout. And while Moore’s enthusiastic followers still will be there, Moore also generates far more intense opposition than most Republican candidates. The opposition may not be as intense/enthusiastic as his supporters are, but they will be much more intense than they would be against Strange (or any other more generic Republican). Not intense enough not to show up to the polls in a comparatively sleep special primary, but definitely motivated enough to vote in a super-high-profile general election, as this one will be.

Even though Strange now carries hugely significant baggage that he didn’t carry in his prior races, he’s still seen as a generally nice-guy, generic Republican who just kinda-sorta sleazily got appointed to the seat and then let his DC handlers run a nasty campaign. But he’ll “vote right” and (in the mind of many voters) not “embarrass” Alabama, and he doesn’t scare anybody — so Jones won’t be able to garner the needed intensity against him that Jones could do against Moore.

Moore, on the other hand (and again whether justly or not) clearly motivates enemies, and clearly scares a lot of people. Moore, as an outspoken conservative Christian, suffers politically from the (somewhat bizarre) idea among a large minority of secularists and Jews that conservative Christians in general, and Moore in particular, somehow represent a physical threat to their well-being.

(I have written a column for PJ Media blasting that fearful reaction against conservative Christians, but it hasn’t been published yet.)

The entire national superstructures of the Democratic Party and the progressive interest groups will flood Alabama with money and attention to turn out “base” Democratic voters against Moore; and a lot of moderate, generally GOP-leaning professionals, many of whom share the bias against conservative Christians, will also turn out heavily to vote against him. But the GOP establishment, having spent some $10 million or more to trash Moore in the primary, won’t put in the same intensity of effort on Moore’s behalf in the general election.

Even without national Democratic/progressive efforts against Moore in 2012, this “fear factor” helped cause him trouble in the general election of that year. He garnered just 51.8 percent of the vote against an only moderately funded Democrat even as his fellow Republican Mitt Romney earned more than 60 percent for president and other statewide Republican candidates were earning at least 54 percent.

With national progressive efforts and demagoguery fanning the flames of fear, the intensity against Moore is likely to be almost as high as the enthusiasm for him. This would not be the case with Strange, whose campaign would elicit at least somewhat less intensity pro and con, and who thus would benefit from the generic Republican advantage in Alabama more reliably than Moore would — and who also would benefit from lower turnout levels overall, as professional, Republican voters tend to turn out (maybe due to higher educational backgrounds?) marginally more reliably than lower-income Democratic voters when it’s not a “normal” November Election Day.

Again, granted, Strange also will likely “under-perform” in comparison to a generic Republican because of the baggage he carries in the public mind from the mode of his appointment and his association with Washington insiders. But without a serious “fear factor” against him, his under-performance may be less than that which Moore can expect.

All told, then, I repeat: Moore is marginally more likely to lose to Jones than Strange would be.

Still, I see either Republican winning in the end. Alabama is a staunchly pro-life state, but Jones is openly pro-choice and pro-funding of Planned Parenthood. That one stance alone will cost him mightily in a general election in this state. He’ll also appear quite liberal, and thus less attractive to a majority of Alabamans, on a number of other issues once the GOP campaign commercials make their mark. I expect Jones to hold either Strange or Moore to a reasonably close — maybe four point — margin, but not to win.

But if he does have any chance at all, it’s probably against Moore, not Strange.


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