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Alabama’s rural voters moved decisively toward the Democratic candidate in Tuesday’s Senate election, joining the rest of the state in a shift that sent former U.S. prosecutor Doug Jones to Capitol Hill.
The Daily Yonder compared this year’s special election results to Alabama’s Senate race in 2016, when incumbent Republican Richard Shelby defeated Democratic challenger Ron Crumpton by nearly 2 to 1. This year’s race was much closer; Democrat Jones won by 1.5 points in the two-party vote. Though the final result was a nail biter, the swing toward the Democrat candidate compared to 2016 was dramatic and widespread.
Rural voters swung about 10 points toward the Democratic candidate compared to 2016. Though the Republican candidate, former state Chief Justice Roy Moore, won a 56% majority of rural voters, he failed to rack up a lead in these smaller counties to erode Democrat Jones’ advantage in the core counties of the state’s largest cities – Birmingham, Huntsville, Mobile, and Montgomery.
Democrat Jones built his victory with a large lead in Birmingham’s core county, Jefferson. He also won more than 60 percent of the two-party votes in the central counties of medium-sized metropolitan areas. That’s a contrast to 2016 Democratic Senate candidate Crumpton, who lost those counties by 10 points.
Statewide, Democrat Jones won 25 counties, compared to Democrat Crumpton, who won 13 counties in 2016.
Every one of Alabama’s 67 counties increased its support of the Democratic Senate candidate in this year’s election. That’s unusual in an era of increasing political polarization. In Virginia’s gubernatorial race last month, for example, Democrat Ralph Northam won the statewide contest by a comfortable 9 points, but the geographic rift between the parties widened. About 20 Virginia counties voted more Republican in 2017 than they did in the 2016 presidential election.
But comparing the Alabama 2017 special Senate election to any other recent contest – in Alabama or elsewhere– is something to be undertaken with caution. Multiple allegations of sexual misconduct against Republican Moore affected the dynamics of the race late in the election cycle. And Republicans were already conflicted about Moore, a controversial candidate who got no support from the party establishment or President Donald Trump during the primary.
On the other hand, Moore said the campaign was a referendum on the Trump presidency, and Trump supported the former state chief justice, even when others in the party were distancing themselves after the sexual misconduct allegations.
The graphs above compare the 2016 and 2017 Alabama Senate races along an urban to rural spectrum for each party. The most urban counties are on the left of each graph; the most rural counties are on the right.
The lighter shade of red or blue is the 2016 result, and the darker shade is the 2017 result. In every category of county, the level of Republican support dropped while the level of Democratic support increased.
Democrat Jones also got a lift from turnout. Voters in the core counties of medium and large metro areas had the largest turnout compared to the 2016 election. (Overall turnout was only about two-thirds of 2016 turnout. That’s expected because more people vote in presidential election years.)
About the county categorizations. The chart breaks Alabama counties into seven categories of increasing rurality, based on population and geography. Major cities are the core counties of metropolitan areas of 1 million residents or more (in Alabama, that is the Birmingham metropolitan area, Jefferson County, only). Major suburbs are the counties surrounding the core urban counties of metros of 1 million or more (six counties in Alabama). Medium cities are the core counties of metropolitan areas of 250,000 to 999,999 residents (three counties in Alabama). Medium suburbs are the counties surrounding core counties in these metro areas (five counties). Small cities are all counties in metro areas of 50,000 to 249,999 residents (13 counties). Adjacent rural are nonmetropolitan counties that are adjacent to a metropolitan area (30 counties). Nonadjacent rural are nonmetropolitan counties that are not adjacent to a metropolitan area (seven counties).