All such conclusions should be sketched out with care.
Most special elections happen well outside of a political vacuum. They are, by definition, slices of one-50th or one-435th of the electorate, which may or may not resemble many other places. They feature inordinate amounts of attention and campaign spending, along with candidates who get much more scrutiny than your average House and Senate nominees. Turnout is often significantly lower than a normal election. Yet because we are starved for data involving actual voters voting, they are what we've got to judge the political zeitgeist. And so we use them.
The Alabama special election lends itself even less well to this exercise than most special elections. In the Roy Moore-Doug Jones race, we have a Republican who won his party's nomination and then was accused by multiple women of pursuing relationships and sexual misconduct with them when they were teenagers — including some who were not of legal consenting age at the time. These allegations date back nearly 40 years in some cases.
Yet we also have a state that is one of the reddest in the country and one of the most stubbornly polarized. That may sound redundant, but the predictability of Alabama's elections is unique, and that's for one main reason: demographics.
Gallup on Monday noted that Alabama ranked in the top 10 of the reddest states in the country. But even on this list of states, it stands out.
That's because it is the most racially diverse of any of these states — by far. The state is 27 percent black and 68 percent white, so it has a very large proportion of African Americans and yet somehow ranks among the most conservative states. Put another way: It's white residents are hugely consistent Republican voters — like, more consistent than most any other state.
In 2012, white voters in Alabama picked Mitt Romney over President Barack Obama 84-15. In 2008, John McCain led Obama 88-10. In 2004, President George Bush won them 80-19. (We don't have numbers for 2016 given exit polls were not conducted in Alabama.) Federal elections in Alabama have become predictable because of racial polarization. There just aren't a whole lot of swing voters. And assuming Democrats can even come close to winning, they'll have over-performed where they have almost always been in recent years.
Which brings us to the why. If Jones wins, you can bet people will ascribe it to the sexual misconduct allegations against Moore. If Moore wins, you can bet there will be plenty of hand-wringing about how Alabama just elected someone accused of these things. But both of those will miss the point to some degree.
Alabama is simply one of the states in which Moore was the most likely to win even amid such allegations. It may be remarkable that so few Republican voters there seemed to be bothered by the allegations, but again, this is a thoroughly unique state in which such a thing could happen just by virtue of polarization and the difficult math for Democrats from 35-40 percent of the vote to a win. I doubt the same would occur outside the Deep South and a handful of the very most conservative states in the country. On some level, this is about believing Moore or believing the media and Moore's accusers, and Alabama Republicans have overwhelmingly chosen Moore.
(The same argument goes for President Trump and Stephen K. Bannon, who both embraced Moore even when many national GOP figures didn't. Will they be able to claim victory by merely holding a dark-red state where the GOP was supposed to win?)
As for Jones potentially winning, not even that was completely outside the realm of possibility at the start of this race. It was unlikely, sure, but some polls in September and October showed a tied race or Moore up single digits, perhaps owing to his extreme politics. And the last time Moore was on the ballot was in 2012, when he sought his old seat on the state Supreme Court, and he won by just four points. If Jones wins by one or a few points, will it really be because Alabama voters were so incensed by the allegations? Will it be because Democrats have momentum? It will be difficult to say with certainty.
Either way, the fact that this is even in question is a good thing for Democrats — but mostly just because it would be a key vote in a closely divided Senate. It doesn't necessarily say anything hugely transferrable about what this says about the 2018 environment or how politicians might weather accusations of sexual misconduct in other states. Sometimes a special election is just that: special.