This article has been updated.
The allegations against Roy Moore reported by The Washington Post on Thursday are just that, allegations. Leigh Corfman told our reporters that when she was 14 years old in 1979, Moore, then 32, ingratiated himself with her and her mother, and eventually made sexual advances toward her. Our reporters talked to other women, too, who reported that he pursued them, all while they were teenagers. Moore, now the Republican Party nominee for the vacant Senate seat in Alabama, denies that this happened. For now, that’s where the issue lies.
But it’s worth looking at the immediate reaction to the article from political partisans. In particular, to lift up an interaction between the Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale and Bibb County, Ala., Republican Party Chairman Jerry Pow.
“Pow tells me he’d vote for Roy Moore even if Moore did commit a sex crime against a girl,” Dale wrote on Twitter. “‘I would vote for Judge Moore because I wouldn’t want to vote for Doug,’ he says. ‘I’m not saying I support what he did.’ ”
“Doug” is Doug Jones, the Democratic candidate for the Senate seat. Pow would vote for Moore even if he inappropriately touched a 14-year-old girl, because at least Pow wouldn’t then have to vote for the Democrat.
We don’t know what sort of interactions Pow and Jones might have had in the past; perhaps there is some private tension between them that makes Pow particularly averse to casting a ballot for Jones. But analysis of partisan polarization conducted by Pew Research over the past few years suggests that if his party identification is the only thing Pow knows about Jones, that might be enough.
In 2016, Pew interviewed Democrats and Republicans across the country. They found that about 9 in 10 members of each party had an unfavorable view of members of the political opposition. What’s more, more than half of members of each party had a very unfavorable view of members of the other party.
During campaigns, that antipathy manifests itself in particular candidates. Last June, of course, those candidates were Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Pew asked Americans to gauge how warmly they felt about various people and groups on a scale from 0 (very cold) to 100 (very warm). Democrats rated Republicans at 31 and Trump at 11. Republicans rated Democrats at 29 and Clinton at 12.
By November 2016, Trump and Clinton were the two most unpopular candidates in the modern history of a presidential election, which was often attributed to their individual personality characteristics. Consider that President Barack Obama saw the widest partisan gap on record in Gallup approval ratings — and he ended his term as relatively popular.
The gap between the parties on Trump is even wider. The extent to which that’s a result of partisanship isn’t clear — but partisanship clearly plays a role.
A central point of political parties, of course, is to offer a shorthand about candidates for voters who may not be familiar with “Doug Jones” or “Roy Moore.” The initial lens through which we view candidates with whom we’re not familiar is that letter after their name. That means that your initial reaction to seeing “Doug Jones (D)” depends on how you view that “(D).”
Pew drilled deeper on Americans’ views of members of the opposing political parties. In 2016, not only did more than half of Democrats and Republicans view members of the other party very unfavorably, but also 4 in 10 Democrats and Republicans see members of the other party as an active threat to the United States.
So if you are one of that 45 percent of Republicans who holds the view that Democrats are a threat to the nation and you see “Doug Jones (D),” you have likely already come to a decision about Jones. If someone said to you, “Would you support for Senate a Republican who asked a 14-year-old to touch his penis 38 years ago or a Democrat (who you see as a threat to the nation’s well-being),” it’s easier to understand why Pow said what he did.
Update: In a tweet on Thursday evening, Moore described his opponents as “evil.”
Even among those Republicans who don’t think Democrats are a threat to the country, many think that Democratic policies are at least bad for the nation. In fact, more Republicans say Democrats’ bad policies are a major reason that they’re Republicans than say that they’re Republicans because Republican policies are good for the country. The same holds true for Democrats.
Among independents who lean toward one party or the other, most lean toward that party because they oppose the other party, not because they like the party with which they tend to vote.
This is the political environment into which the Moore allegations have fallen.
Again, Pow’s response to Jones may be more nuanced than a simple calculation that a deeply morally flawed Republican (assuming Moore did to Corfman what she alleges) is inherently better than an untainted Democrat. But if it weren’t more nuanced than that, we shouldn’t be surprised.