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Politics Why Turnout Shifts in Alabama Bode Well for Democrats

23:06  13 december  2017
23:06  13 december  2017 Source:   nytimes.com

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a group of people standing around a fire hydrant: Waiting in line to vote at a church in Montgomery, Ala., on Tuesday in the special election for U.S. Senate. Black turnout was crucial to the surprise victory of the Democrat, Doug Jones. © Jim Watson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images Waiting in line to vote at a church in Montgomery, Ala., on Tuesday in the special election for U.S. Senate. Black turnout was crucial to the surprise victory of the Democrat, Doug Jones.

Over the last eight years, political analysts had come to think that Democrats were at a distinct disadvantage in midterm elections, since their younger and nonwhite coalition was less likely to turn out than older and white voters.

It is time to retire that notion. Tuesday in Alabama, Democrats benefited from strong turnout that plainly exceeded midterm levels, while white working-class Republicans voted in weaker numbers. It was enough to send Doug Jones to the Senate instead of Roy Moore, in one of the reddest states in the country.

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This has been a pattern in all of this year’s major special elections, as well as in the Virginia general election. It is consistent with a long-term trend toward stronger turnout by the party out of power in off-year elections. It also suggests that President Trump’s less educated and affluent version of the Republican coalition has eroded the party’s traditional turnout advantage.

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To the extent that there had been any weakness in Democratic turnout so far this year, it had been among black voters. In Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District, for instance, black turnout barely eclipsed midterm levels even as all other voters surged well past it. A similar pattern appeared in Virginia. In majority-black Petersburg, the turnout was even lower than it was in 2013, even as turnout surged in Northern Virginia.

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But in Alabama, black turnout was far stronger than white Republican turnout, based on county-level data and the exit polls. Black voters probably represented an even larger share of the electorate than they did in 2012 or 2008.

A reasonable initial estimate is that black turnout probably reached 30 percent above 2014 levels — that’s the increase in total votes, not the overall turnout rate. Statewide, the turnout increase for all voters was just 13 percent.

It will be easier to make a more precise estimate of the increase in black turnout when precinct-level data becomes available in Alabama’s diverse, urban centers or when the voter file becomes available.

At the same time, Mr. Jones benefited from an extremely favorable turnout pattern among white voters, especially along educational lines.

Over all, there was a clear relationship between the change in a county’s turnout and its educational composition.

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In Alabama’s two best-educated counties — Madison County and predominantly white Shelby County — turnout surged 30 percent above 2014 levels. These are two Republican-leaning counties, which would seem to suggest that Mr. Jones was winning and turning out Republican-leaning voters, not just benefiting from low G.O.P. turnout or high Democratic turnout.

Mr. Jones won 18 percent more raw votes in Shelby County than Hillary Clinton did in 2016, and it is not plausible to suggest that he did so by tapping into Democratic voters who didn’t turn out in the much-higher-turnout presidential race.

The pattern repeated itself across well-educated metropolitan areas and enclaves, including college towns like Auburn and Tuscaloosa.

There was no such turnout surge in white, working-class Alabama. In fact, turnout was lower than it was in 2014 in many of Alabama’s mostly white, working-class counties. In Alabama’s least-educated, predominantly white counties, the turnout was often far lower than it was in 2014. In Fayette County, where just 13 percent of voters have a college degree, turnout landed at just 69 percent of 2014 levels.

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Mr. Moore, whose candidacy was troubled by allegations of sexual misconduct with teenagers, nonetheless fared very well in these mostly white, working-class counties. It was enough to keep him competitive, even as he badly underperformed in more diverse and metropolitan parts of Alabama.

Obviously, a turnout surge in well-educated Democratic areas and a tepid turnout in white working-class areas will hurt Republicans just about anywhere, as it did in Alabama. It also poses a particular danger to the G.O.P. in a number of carefully gerrymandered districts where Republicans count on rural white voters to cancel out well-educated, liberal Democratic enclaves.

Districts like Texas’ 21st and Second and Seventh — which run from the University of Texas and Rice University to the outer exurbs and countryside far from downtown Austin and Houston — are obvious candidates. So are Michigan’s Eighth, which includes Lansing, Mich., and a number of districts in North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

It is difficult to read too much into the results of this election, given that Mr. Moore was such an unusually weak candidate.

But the turnout lesson is fairly clear. Alabama is only the latest, if most extreme, example of this year’s major turnout patterns, and these shifts pose a big challenge to Republicans in 2018.

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