For Alabama Democrat Doug Jones to win Tuesday’s special election for U.S. Senate, he’ll need near-historic turnout from the southern state’s large black community and progressive voters. If history holds, he won’t get it.
The Alabama contest — complicated by multiple on-the-record allegations that Republican Roy Moore is a pedophile — offers an important litmus test for Democrats. With their eyes on the 2018 congressional elections, the party is still uncertain about its ability to turn virulent anti-Trump sentiment among left-leaning voters into action on Election Day.
Coupled with disgust about the evidence that Moore in his 30s preyed on teenage girls, some Democratic operatives thought the Alabama race would be a great opportunity to capture a seat in a solidly Republican state. Indeed, polling after the initial allegations surfaced showed a big boost for Jones. (The polling has since shown a rebound for Moore.)
But to engineer the win, the party needs to mobilize a group of voters known in progressive circles as the “Rising American Electorate” — minorities, unmarried women and millennials, ages 18 to 34 — who have failed repeatedly to show up on Election Day when Barack Obama is not atop the ticket.
Nationwide, 133 million people accounting for 59 percent of the country’s voting-eligible population fall into this “RAE” category, according to the Voter Participation Center, an organization trying to boost turnout among unmarried women and minorities. In the 2016 presidential race, this group of voters accounted for 52.6 percent of all votes cast.
In Alabama, more than 58 percent of registered voters in 2016 were part of this group.
“African Americans, unmarried women, and young people in Alabama could easily be the next example of the RAE's power to determine the outcome of an election and change the direction of our country," said Page Gardner, founder and president of the Voter Participation Center. “Deep-red Alabama could surprise us all — and it'll be because of voters in the Rising American Electorate."
Jones’ team knows this group is crucial to his chances. He has recently stepped up efforts to court black voters following criticism that the campaign hadn’t done the needed canvassing, handouts, phone calls and face-to-face conversations targeting black voters.
"They've got boots on the ground now. They finally hired people to work in the black community," said Faya Rose Toure, an attorney and political activist in Selma.
The Jones team also has enlisted the help of some of the most prominent black Democrats in the country to make campaign stops in the final days of the race, including Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Rep. John Lewis of Georgia and Deval Patrick, the former governor of Massachusetts.
Other groups are also trying to boost turnout. The Voter Participation Center’s get-out-the-vote effort has sent nearly 423,000 pieces of mail to black and Hispanic voters and run voter registration ads online, for example. And Toure’s “Vote or Die” campaign has roughly 30 organizers and has been holding events and handing out fliers that urge people to vote — all without explicitly endorsing either candidate.
"We're out everyday building up that energy, that movement spirit that embraces people and pulls you in," she said.
Still, Democrats have struggled in this year’s special elections to convert anti-Trump energy into Election Day victories. Optimism picked up after the party grabbed 15 seats in the Virginia state legislature and three in Georgia last month, and it’s now looking to Alabama’s special election as a test of just how far Democrats can push into solidly Republican territory.
But the hurdle in Alabama is sky high.
Minorities and young people have some of the lowest turnout and registration rates in the nation. Getting them to the polls in meaningful numbers has proven difficult, particularly in mid-term elections and off-year special elections. Nationally, 35 percent of the so-called Rising America Electorate weren’t registered to vote in 2016 compared to just 22 percent of other groups of voting-age adults.
In Alabama, 33 percent of voting-eligible people in this “RAE” group were unregistered in 2016, including 64 percent of Asian Americans, 61 percent of Latinos, 36 percent of millennials, 33 percent of unmarried women and 27 percent of blacks, according to the Voter Participation Center.
Activists argue that Alabama’s black voters are energized: “I haven’t spoken to anyone in my generation that’s not going to vote,” said 61-year-old Derryn Moten, who chairs the history and political science department at Alabama State University.
But what Jones needs are younger Alabamians — particularly young black voters. And even optimistic Democrats in the state say they don’t expect large turnout from that slice of the electorate.
“They hear us when we say ‘this is probably the most consequential election in a very long time in Alabama’ and they believe us,” Moten said. “But I don’t know that believing us also means they have a role or an obligation to make sure that they vote.”
The RAE’s political influence in the South should increase in coming years, as the minority population grows. It could offer Democrats an opportunity to turn red states such as Texas, Georgia and North Carolina purple, and maybe ultimately blue.
First, though, progressives and other left-of-center activists must find a way to convince these people to vote. Indeed, the Voter Participation Center estimates that 35 percent — or 25.4 million RAE voters — won’t cast a ballot in 2017.
Throughout the South, more than just the white millennials and unmarried white women in this “RAE” group would need to participate for Democrats to overcome the numerical advantage Republicans enjoy among whites, said Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University.
“The challenge in the Deep South has been that it’s really hard to find enough white Democrats to vote alongside black Democrats to be able to put a winning coalition together,” Gillespie said.
On Tuesday, in addition to turnout among black voters and other parts of the “RAE,” Jones would need some Moore voters to stay home on Election Day, others to vote for write-in candidate Lee Busby and still others to cross party lines and vote for Jones himself.
Gardner of the Voter Participation Center, seemed undaunted.
“It’s a competitive race, which is quite astounding,” she said. “And the fact that it is a competitive race, makes a point in and of itself in terms of who's energized.