The Alabama Senate Race Is Still Up for Grabs

With the release of a few polls last week, conventional wisdom has concluded that Republican Roy Moore has regained the lead in the Alabama Senate race against Democrat Doug Jones. Personally, I’ve been quite skeptical of polling in that race for a long time now.

It is important to keep a few things in mind about this election.

  1. Even before news broke that Roy Moore has a history of stalking and abusing teenage girls, he is an extremist who lost his seat on the Alabama Supreme Court twice for refusal to follow the law.
  2. Doug Jones is a highly qualified candidate running an excellent race.
  3. There is currently a war going on in the Republican Party between the establishment and the insurgents. Moore is exhibit A for the latter.
  4. This is a special election taking place in the middle of the holiday season.

In a state as red as Alabama, none of that might have mattered if Moore’s victims hadn’t come forward. But it is probably why the polls were all over the map even prior to that.

Steven Shephard explains why we should be skeptical of the polling in this race. The first reason is that none of the polling firms have any history in that state.

The most important and closely watched election in the nation is taking place in the equivalent of a polling black box. There are no established, in-state polling institutions or dominant regional media outlets to fill that void. Since it’s not typically a politically competitive state, outside pollsters don’t have much experience in Alabama either…

“This is a state where no one has a real track record,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, “because who bothers to poll Alabama statewide races?”

Secondly, the spate of polls released last week were primarily from little-known firms using questionable methods. For example:

The JMC poll was conducted solely by contacting voters on landline phones, a controversial methodology at a time when nearly half of Alabama adults live in households without a landline. Those in cell-phone-only households skew younger; a stunning 52 percent of voters in the JMC poll are aged 65 or older…

The third post-Thanksgiving poll is from the student-run Emerson College Polling Society. That poll included a segment surveyed online to account for voters without landline phones and was weighted by age. The poll, which excludes undecided voters or those who might write in another candidate, shows Moore leading by 6 percentage points. That’s closer than the previous Emerson poll, conducted shortly after the first allegations against Moore.

So you have one poll that skewed older because they only contacted potential voters via landline telephones and another poll with a trend line suggesting that the race has tightened since the first allegations against Moore were reported. None of that tells us much about who is leading the race at this point.

Over the weekend, a couple of big polling firms weighed in on the race. But while the Washington Post showed Jones ahead by three, CBS News has Moore up by six. What we should take from that is that no one seems to have much of a clue about who is going to show up at the polls a week from tomorrow, because there’s never been a race like this in Alabama. Keep in mind that most pollsters depend on a history of voter turnout to make their predictions, which none of these firms have. Combine that with the fact that this is an oddly-timed special election that is garnering huge national attention, and you have a recipe for a polling nightmare.

This isn’t a matter of “unskewing” the polls, nor is it a suggestion that Jones is ahead. It is simply to suggest that we don’t really know what is going to happen next week. But the fact that a statewide election in Alabama could be up for grabs would have been unthinkable a mere 12 months ago. Hold onto your hats and keep an eye on this one. It is far from over yet!

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.