If Roy Moore wins a U.S. Senate race in Alabama on Tuesday, Breitbart News chairman Stephen K. Bannon is going to take credit.
This is an easy prediction because when Moore won the Republican primary runoff, in September, Breitbart declared in its news coverage that the “result proved the enduring power and reach of Breitbart News. . . . Bannon, and Breitbart, are no longer just the most hated names inside the Beltway. Now, they are also the most feared.”
How much influence over the outcome does Bannon actually have?
“I would say probably negligible,” said Fred Shepherd, who chairs the political science department at Samford University in Birmingham. “A lot of Moore's supporters are not from Steve Bannon's world. The rural vote — I bet a lot of those folks don't even know who he is.”
Though he styles himself as populist champion, Bannon was earning an MBA from Harvard and working at Goldman Sachs in the 1980s, while Moore was beginning his political career in Alabama (and allegedly pursuing teenage girls).
By the time Bannon became chairman of Breitbart News, in 2012, Moore had been a well-known culture warrior in his state for a decade, thanks to his refusal to take down a Ten Commandments monument at the Alabama Supreme Court, a stand that led to his first removal as chief justice.
Bannon can't even say that he was in Moore's corner for the duration of the Senate race. He was President Trump's chief strategist when Trump initially endorsed incumbent Sen. Luther Strange, in August, and was still working in the White House when Moore finished first in that month's primary, which triggered the September runoff.
Ben Shapiro, a former Breitbart editor who heads the conservative news site Daily Wire, said last month that “Bannon stapled himself to Moore's leg so that he could claim credit for Moore's primary victory, even though Moore's victory had little to do with Bannon.”
“If Moore wins” on Tuesday added Carol A. Cassel, who specializes in political behavior and public opinion at the University of Alabama, “it's because Alabama is a Republican, culturally conservative state. I think those factors put blinders on people when they consider the evidence against Moore, so it's often disbelieved or questioned. I don't think Bannon makes much difference.”
If Bannon's effect on the Moore-Jones contest registers between modest and nonexistent, then it must be noted — if we're being consistent — that a Moore defeat would not mean Bannon is toxic, either.
“If Moore loses, I think it will because enough women find him unacceptable,” Cassel said.
Bannon won't be the reason Moore wins or loses.
More than a measure of Bannon's sway, the result of the election will be a referendum on his political instincts. When he broke from Trump, after leaving the White House, and backed Moore over Strange in the runoff, it was a sign that Bannon might understand the president's base even better than the president himself.
And when Bannon stood by Moore, amid accusations of sexual misconduct that initially sank Moore's poll numbers, Bannon bet that voters would ultimately come back. We'll soon find out whether he was right — whether his knack for picking a winner remains strong, even if his ability to make a winner is overstated.