What actually happened in Alabama?

The overwhelming mainstream narrative of Doug Jones’s victory over Roy Moore in Alabama has been focused on black turnout. Here is the New York Times:

According to CNN exit polling, 30 percent of the electorate was African-American, with 96 percent of them voting for Mr. Jones. (Mr. Jones’s backers had felt he needed to get north of 25 percent to have a shot to win.) A remarkable 98 percent of black women voters supported Mr. Jones. The share of black voters on Tuesday was higher than the share in 2008 and 2012, when Barack Obama was on the ballot.

But if you actually look at the exit polling, it is pretty clear that the real story of Jones’s victory was not inordinate black turnout but rather inordinate white support for the Democratic candidate.

In the following table, I have compiled the black share of the electorate, black support for Democrats, and the election result for the 2008, 2012, and 2017 Alabama elections. These are the last three years in which this kind of exit polling exists and these are the exit polls the NYT references in the quotation above.


The black share of the electorate and black support for Democrats are virtually unchanged across the three elections, but the outcome in the last election is wildly different.

Here is the same table for white voters.


The white share of the electorate is virtually unchanged, but white support for the Democrat changes dramatically, rising all the way to 30 percent in the Jones-Moore election. This white swing towards the Democratic candidate is basically solely responsible for the fact that Jones won rather than losing by over 20 points, which is the typical outcome of a statewide Alabama election that features this level of black turnout.

  • Carlos

    Wouldn’t it be more fitting to compare the turnout to past midterm elections when there is no president on the ballot and turnout is generally lower?

  • carolannie

    I would agree, especially since it was a special election.

  • Tricky 2 Raqqa Rhyme

    It might be, but there are no exit polls for those elections, also turnout was way higher than midterm elections, almost as high as presidential ones.

  • Justin Runia

    Maybe don’t wade into the debate, particularly one as charged as this, without the data, then?

  • zebbart

    But this election had the hype of a presidential election.

  • Ulan McKnight

    Valid statistical analysis changes a single variable (year of midterm election) while keeping everything else the same.

    Care to run it again Matt?

    I have no doubt you will find ‘what really happened’ is that black voters turned out in much higher numbers and white voters stayed home. A positive (for ‘Good’ white voters that is), I bet you will find that more white women voted in absolute numbers as well.

  • Robert Reiley

    In this case, since Matt is talking about proportions rather than raw vote total Matt’s point stands.

  • Robert Reiley

    Actually, as per Bruening’s point, your argument is not relevant, because Matt is not comparing raw vote totals, but proprotions of those votes. There probably wasn’t even an exit-poll in Alabama during the 2014 midterms. There also was no exit poll data in 2016.

    If your argument was about raw vote totals, your point would stand.

    What Matt shows here is that the proportion of black voters was about the same here and the elections in 2008. The only change, relative to proportion of voters by race, is the share of white voters that Jones won in 2017. Obama won a mere 10% of white voters in 2008, and went down to a crushing defeat in Alabama.

    In 2012, Obama improved to 15% of the white vote. Proportionately speaking, Jones doubled Obama’s performance with respect to white voters. His share of the black vote is pretty much the same as Obama’s proportions in 2008 and 2012.

  • Robert Reiley

    In other words, proportionately, there is no significang difference between black turnout in 2008, 2012, and 2017. The only place where “it’s not a presidential election year” argument matters is when you are looking at raw vote totals.

    Since the proportions of black and white vote turnout is the same, then how does Doug Jones win? His proportion of the black vote is about the same as Obama’s was. The only thing that changes (beyond raw vote total) is the proportion of the white vote that Jones won relative Obama.

  • Carlos

    The proportions might also change during non-presidential elections though. The various burdens of voting may depress turnout amount certain groups disproportionately more than others.

  • Carlos

    Wow, I just saw that Matt responded to this criticism in a new post. This blog is great.

  • Paul Justison

    Jones won with 671 thousand votes, 60,000 less than Hillary took in last year’s Presidential. On the Republican side, Trump took 1.3 million last year, while Moore got 650 thousand. While the white vote helped Jones, it pales in comparison to the whites that abstained.

  • Paul B. Lot

    Did the whites who abstained end up hurting, or helping, Jones?

  • Dan Ancona

    Waitaminute though. This is wrong, because the expected black turnout share for a special wasn’t 29% or anything like it. Jones needed to run the table: he needed depressed white turnout (I still haven’t seen numbers on this), some amount of white crossover, and astronomical black turnout to win. It’s unremarkable that black people voted for Jones, but it’s extraordinary that they turned out at the rate they did. Not sure why most analysis has focused on share of the electorate. It’s the absolute numbers that matter.

  • vintermann

    I agree that it would be more informative to see turnout numbers, or “share of actually voting electorate”

  • sandra350

    but we know the result in Alabama elections (regardless if they’re federal or statewide elections) with very high black turnout: Dems still lose by 20 points. The numbers show that high black turnout does not change the result for Dems – what changes the result for Dems is changes in the white electorate (whether they stay home in large numbers or vote for the Dem candidate).

  • Dan Ancona

    The bottom line is that black people turned out at the same rate in a special election that they did in two presidentials that featured *a black guy at the top of the ticket*. I’ve been obsessed with the midterm/special dropoff problem since 2009. It’s an enormous problem for Dems. Believe me. This *never* happens.

  • Ulan McKnight

    Exactly this.

  • ToyotaBedZRock

    The turnout % stayed the same. White and black came out to vote in similar amounts. It’s just that either a different type of whites came out or they just couldn’t vote for the molester.

  • Sean

    Yeah it was because of high turnout of black voters.

  • KiteFlyer89

    I think there’s a pretty compelling case here that it wasn’t, it’s a factual question as opposed to a values one.

    Like, there’s no real reason this has to be a zero-sum game in terms of how the Democrats should go forward – as shown by Doug Jones, who appealed to black voters while overperforming with whites. But the math just isn’t there for a high black turnout to be the determinant factor in this election.

  • Questy

    I believe you have demonstrated that there are more white voters than black voters in the state of Alabama. And that’s literally the only thing you’ve demonstrated.

  • MarlboroStan

    Polls are one thing, but can you tell me this. How many GOP voters told pollsters one thing but did another in the voting booth?

  • jdwilson

    Yes this is the correct question to get at whether the point of the article is correct. If 20% of white voters lied to pollsters (no evidence to support that number of course) then it is about turnout. If not, well, there’s a point made here.

  • Lucas Jensen

    Another “but what about the white people?” article from Bruenig. Almost like it’s a pattern or something? This sucks.

  • ToyotaBedZRock

    Except he is right. You want a feel good myth that will mislead the party in the future.

  • MarlboroStan

    What actually happened in Alabama?

    Short answer: The people of Alabama rejected a pedophile representing them in congress.

    Long answer: Democratic levels were at presidential year levels while GOP levels were at midterm levels.

  • LurkinLongmont

    Hopeful answer: Decent people showed up at the polls this time.

  • MichaelDrew

    Look at the numbers again. The second line here just isn’t there. It’s not.

  • Lewis

    Mr. Bruenig, you’ll never never please the haters, but surely your admirers deserve to not be misled. People are going to willfully misread this. You’re walking face first into a tornado. To head this off I recommend a few caveats:

    A. Some things don’t really show up on statistical reviews.

    The mainstream narrative doesn’t have to rely only on statistics of electoral shares. Anecdotally, the police were at the polls and bothering people (1). The work of get out the vote is more complicated than just coalition blocs. Who knocked on doors and organized the voter drives? Who is most threatened by police? Mostly Black people.

    B. Distinguish between the typical White Alabama voter, and new voters.

    If you were to pull aside a random White person in Alabama, they’re still a Republican voter, who are still overwhelmingly trying to veto the Black vote. (It’s continuing, they want a recount.)

    Hopefully these new votes here are a sign of Republicans starting to lose.

    1. https://twitter.com/kenklippenstein/status/940668812491395074

  • christ, you can’t get off your pro-white center at all

  • RepublicansSUCKS

    We black voters stepped it up, again and save America from selfish racist white evangelicals AND leftists assholes who didn’t find Doug Jones pure enough because unlike Dear Leader who just “marched with MLK”, Doug Jones did better than march so he went after the KKK and got convictions. Doug Jones didn’t call the South the “Confederacy”. Doug Jones didn’t have a selfish saboteur who stole votes from him. He didn’t tell us to get over “identity politics”. He stood for us, decades ago so WE stood for him when it mattered most. Make no mistake WE black voters will decide who the Democratic Party nominee will be,NOBODY else and you people won’t have Clinton to bash again as a distraction when Bernie Sanders goes down again in 2020 then claim the system is “rigged”













  • Lewis

    What do you think a law and order Democrat as president will do regarding police? Clinton showed that in the 90’s.

    Was Harris being considered as a candidate until Trump won? No. That is a clear signal that she’s being floated as a concession to the White vote, not Black.

    You could even say the white voters in Alabama proved that Black voters should not have to nominate someone as far right as Kamala Harris.

  • RepublicansSUCKS

    This racist asshole Matt Bruening blamed us black folks for Trump becoming
    President yet credited white folks for Doug Jones winning in Alabama



  • Suede


  • HSVcoalition 4Democracy

    Turnout, Turnout ,TURNOUT. If anybody ever looked at Alabama elections before, they’d realize Alabama rarely reaches 40% turnout in ANY election much less a midterm. That’s the biggest surprise. The makeup of the voters ultimately matters less than the mass. When you get more of all groups they will have more in common than not. The vast majority of Alabama doesn’t like and has never liked, ol’roy, but he’s a huckster, who worked the press in years past. More attention to both sides plus more (and more effective) outreach by NAACP and others, not only motivated but helped them to the polls.

  • LosGatosCA

    My guess is Matt is white.

  • Suede

    Great counterpoint. Amazing depth and logic!

  • keta

    Some would call this cherry-picking, Matty Matt, but I think it’s more like anal angling. You know, like you pulled it out of your ass.

  • KiteFlyer89

    Ideas that are compatible:
    a) Black turnout was on-par with an Obama presidential election and Jones would not have won without this.

    b) Jones got a higher proportion of the white vote – whether it was Republican crossovers or enthused Democratic whites or depressed Republican turnout or some combination thereof – and would not have won without this.

    c) B had more of a net impact on the vote than A.

    I get that people are reading various intra-left debates into this piece, but the numbers aren’t so flexible.

  • Jack

    Almost all the increase in the non-black vote for Jones compared to Obama (~70k votes) was for voters under 45 years-old. Many of them are new voters or first-time AL voters, not swing voters.
    Jones got 90+% of the vote of Clinton 2016 based on strong participation by black and young voters, while Moore got less than 50% of the Trump 2016 vote.
    The story of this election is turnout of the D demographics and lack of turnout in R demographics, not flips of longtime R voters to D.