Democrat Doug Jones’ victory over Republican Roy Moore, in Alabama’s U.S. Senate race on Tuesday, is a classic example of a “pullback election.”
I coined that term in 2009 to explain to my class at the State University at Albany how Republican Chris Christie beat then-incumbent Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine of New Jersey.
Momentum usually determines electoral winners. However, there are infrequent elections in which the voters pull back from the front-runner and change the outcome. The factor is usually driven by swing voters who do not agree with, like or trust candidates — or a combination of all three. This is how Harry Truman beat Thomas Dewey in 1948, and why Donald Trump pulled off his win last year against Hillary Clinton.
The pullback — the metaphorical equivalent of swimming into a riptide — elected Jones.
Heading into last weekend, almost all the polls showed Republican Moore with a narrow but growing lead. The media coverage focused on the spread between Moore and Jones, not the hard number in the data, which was where Moore stood.
In races where you have an incumbent or a de facto incumbent (such as Clinton in 2016 and Moore on Tuesday), the polling tends to accurately track his or her strength. Whoever is not for the incumbent doesn’t vote or votes for the challenger.
The final report by the RealClear Politics poll of averages on Monday put Moore at 48.1 percent, and he got 48.4 percent when the votes were counted. The polling was spot-on when it came to Moore. Jones’ final RealClear reading was 45.9 percent, but he finished with 49.9 percent of the vote; 1.7 percent were presumably following Alabama senior Sen. Richard Shelby’s advice to write in the name of a solid Republican other than Moore.
The polling fairly accurately tracked Moore’s strength but failed to account for the pullback from voters who did not agree with, like or trust him. Jones’ campaign successfully targeted three strategic objectives down the stretch: It shaved Moore’s edge among rural voters, swept Alabama’s suburban clusters, and pushed the black vote to a record 30 percent of the total statewide.
After Alabama, Republican candidates can no longer laugh off November’s losses, because from Nassau and Westchester counties through New Jersey and northern Virginia through to Alabama’s metropolitan clusters, an arc of suburban voters are increasingly rejecting the Trump brand.
Not to mention that if Trump does not have coattails in Ruby Red Alabama, congressional Republicans may increasingly begin to separate from the Trump administration. Consequently, if Trump does not adjust quickly to these negative trends in the suburbs, which cast about half of the nation’s votes, Democrats’ strength from the urban cores will outvote Trump’s base among small-town and rural voters in 2018 and 2020.
Trump’s instinct to only talk to his base renders him singularly unpersuasive and, if uncorrected, that could unravel his presidency.
Bruce N. Gyory is a political and strategic consultant at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP and an adjunct professor of political Science at SUNY Albany.