Doug Jones will be the next senator from Alabama, the first Democrat to hold that position in the state since Howell Heflin retired in 1996 and Sen. Richard C. Shelby, reading the writing on the wall, shifted to the GOP in 1994.
Jones carried 25 of the state’s 67 counties. In each county, he did better than Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton did during the 2016 general election; in 12 counties, he won where Clinton didn’t.
It has been about 15 hours since Jones won, as of writing, and a lot of analysis of the results will ensue. But one factor has largely flown under the radar: In 11 counties, Jones actually received more votes than Clinton. Not a higher vote margin — actual votes, even though 59 percent of voters statewide cast ballots in the 2016 election and the special election on Tuesday turned out only 37 percent of voters, according to Edison Media Research.
Interestingly, with only one exception the counties that Jones flipped aren’t the ones in which he earned more votes than Clinton. In other words, Jones earned more Democratic votes than Clinton in 10 counties that he lost anyway. In total, he outperformed Clinton by about 13,300 votes in those 11 counties. He beat Republican Roy Moore by about 20,700 as of Wednesday morning.
In every county, Moore received fewer votes than Republican Donald Trump did in the presidential election last year — at least a third fewer.
In no county did Jones earn more than 30 percent fewer votes than Clinton.
Notice the broad swing in three of the 11 counties where he earned more votes than Clinton: Madison, Shelby and Baldwin. He lost the latter two, but between these three counties he earned 11,275 more votes than did Clinton while Moore earned nearly 114,000 votes fewer than Trump.
Notice, too, that Jones’s performance vs. Clinton’s actually improved as his performance against Moore was worse. In other words, places where Moore did better were more likely to give Jones more votes than Clinton last year. This is probably explained in part by voters in heavily Republican places feeling more compelled to vote for Jones than they did Clinton.
This also means that Jones’s performance relative to Clinton’s was worse in counties with higher black populations. Those counties voted heavily for both Clinton and Jones; he had more room to improve on Clinton’s performance in places where she did far worse. And he did.
There are two reasons Jones might have outperformed Clinton: more support for him as a candidate than there was for Clinton and/or an increase in turnout.
Who in those counties might have come out to vote for Jones but didn’t last year? One factor that is important to consider is that the 2016 race in Alabama was a foregone conclusion, with Trump, like Republicans before him back to 1980, winning the state. Since 1984, no Republican has won the state by fewer than six points; since 2004, the margin has been at least 20 points. If you live in a heavily Republican county in a heavily Republican state, there’s less reason to head to the polls for a presidential general election than in other places.
An interesting example is Etowah County, which is 15 percent non-Hispanic black, according to the Census Bureau and which Moore won by 19 points, compared to Trump’s nearly 50-point win last year. Jones earned 168 more votes than Clinton while Moore earned more than 16,000 fewer votes than Trump. Was this Moore people staying home while Jones voters came out to the polls? Or was it people weighing in heavily against Moore?
If it was the latter, that’s a bit embarrassing for Moore. Etowah is his home county.