There was a lot of conversation yesterday while folks were waiting for the final Alabama Senate returns to come in. In my circles, much of it circled around a pattern in the exit polls: Only 44% of the those polled were White Evangelicals compared to 47% in previous election cycles. Right away, the explainers showed up. There is a very good analysis from Sarah Pulliam Bailey in the Washington Post. Christianity Today reported that Al Mohler told CNN that Roy Moore was “a bridge too far” that caused white evangelicals to stay away. Still, 80% of White Evangelicals (using the Washington Post Exit Poll) voted for Moore, pretty much that same figure as the 2016 presidential election.
Determining whether this supposed defection happened or not is challenging for a couple of reasons. First, we have the ongoing problem of self-identified evangelicals. More importantly, the exit poll conflates race and religion. Were there fewer willing to call themselves evangelicals? Fewer whites as a percentage? We are left with the 44% data point without any particular strategy for interpreting it.
The more significant dynamic in the outcome is race. Not only did the exit polls show an extremely lopsided support for Jones among Black voters, but the exit poll also shows interesting variations from past registration patterns.
According to Alabama state records, Whites make up 71% of active eligible voters while Blacks make up 26%. But the exit poll above shows that Black voters were a larger share of the electorate than their registration would suggest while White voters underperformed (consistent with some late reporting last night).
Because the evangelical percentages are conflated with race, an increase in the percentage of Black vote will simultaneously increase the non-white-evangelical vote. It’s quite possible that the evangelical vote didn’t change from prior elections — they just made up a smaller slice of the electorate because of the increase in the non-white population.
In the methodology section of the Post’s story, they explain that there were 2,387 people interviewed in the exit poll. So I took that number, multiplied it by the respective category percentages, then multiplied that number times the percentage going to each candidate.
For example, 44% of 2387 is 1050 and 80% of those voted for Moore which gives him 840 votes out of the 2387 with Jones getting 189. When you add the columns together, you see that Jones wins with this breakdown by 71 votes or roughly 3%. If the White Evangelical vote had been 47% of the total (which reduces the other row to 53%), Moore wins by 12 votes (right at the half-percent official recount level).
When we look at the racial breakdown, we see a much more plausible explanation of the results (which, as I’ve said, get conflated with the evangelical variable). Using the same logic Moore gets 1071 White votes (66% of 2387 times his 68% share). Because the Black vote for Moore was so small (4%) the vote count drops to zero among Blacks (it’s actually 4% of one vote). Jones, on the other hand, picks up 1137 votes and wins by 66 votes (the 2.8% is pretty close to what I was hearing of the margin by the end of the night last night). If the Black vote had matched the distribution of eligible active voters (chart on the right), Moore would have won by 2%.
It turns out that while we were all focused on Moore’s past problems with teenagers, the Alabama NAACP had been heavily organizing get out the vote campaigns, keeping people aware of the upcoming special election, and making sure that voters could get to the polls. The Alabama Secretary of State had estimated the Black turnout at 25% but the NAACP argued that this was low.
If the Black turnout was higher than normal (matching Obama’s first election), that also drives up the non-white-evangelical vote share.
It may well be that white evangelicals opted to stay home or to cast their vote for Kenny Stabler. And it’s still true that a huge majority of them voted for Moore in spite of everything. These are questions that still need to be explored with good research and not just eyeballing exit polls.
But for now, my money is on an energized Black vote that isn’t likely to sit out future elections.