Alabama Part II

I wrote a post yesterday pointing out that the real story of Doug Jones’s upset in Alabama was the inordinate amount of white support for the Democratic candidate. In support of this position, I used the 2008 and 2012 exit polls to show that black turnout was no different in 2017 than those years, and yet those years saw the Democrat lose by over 20 points while this election saw the Democrat win by 1.5 points. Some basic math and reasoning tells us that the difference between losing by over 20 points and winning by 1.5 points was not high black turnout but rather white voters supporting the Democrat by much higher margins than they typically do.

The post did not really have a point beyond that. There is no clear reason why this helps any of my political preferences. I just thought it would be worthwhile to tell the truth about the Alabama outcome in the face of nearly unanimous misreporting about what happened.

Because people who are real into politics often follow it in the same way normal people follow TV shows (i.e. with huge emotional investment in the drama, characters, and plot development), this post attracted a lot of weird ire. Most of the weird ire was just that: strange outbursts with not even an attempt at making a substantive point. But there was one argument that some brought up that is worth addressing here.

The argument goes like this: It is not right to compare the 2017 election to the 2008 and 2012 elections because the latter two were presidential elections. If you want to really figure out whether black turnout or different white voting behavior was the primary cause of Jones’s victory, you should use midterms or other special elections as comparisons.

This argument poses some practical difficulties because no such data exists for comparison. But you can fiddle with the exit poll data to simulate what a normal low-black-turnout midterm election would look like and see that, relative to such an election, it is still the case that the change in white voting behavior was by far the largest factor in Jones’s victory.

To do that, I created the following baseline scenario. For this scenario, I took the 2017 exit polling data and I subtracted 5 points from the black share of the electorate and added 5 points to the white share of the electorate. This simulates what would have happened if black turnout had been massively lower. For this scenario, I also place white Democratic support at 15% (this was what percent voted for Obama in 2012) and I place black Democratic support at 96% (this was what percent voted for Jones in 2017).

As you can see, in the baseline scenario, Doug Jones only gets 34 points from black and white voters combined.

From this baseline scenario, we can simulate what would happen if black turnout increases to the level we saw in the Jones election. Holding all else equal, increasing the black share of the vote from 24% to 29% and decreasing the white share of the vote from 71% to 66% gives us this outcome.

Jones’s point total rises 4 points from 34 points to 38 points.

From the baseline scenario, we can also simulate what would have happened if white voters had swung towards Jones in the magnitude they did, but black turnout had remained unchanged. We do this by increasing the percent of whites voting for Democrats from 15% to 30% (Jones got 30% of the white vote), holding all else equal.

Jones’s point total rises 10 points from 34 points to 44 points.

Finally, we can bring in the actual 2017 data, which both combined high black turnout and the white swing together.

As you’d expect, Doug Jones gets 48 points under this scenario, which is 14 points higher than under the baseline scenario.

So the total difference from the baseline scenario is 14 points. The change in the white vote is responsible for 10 of those points and the change in black turnout is responsible for 4. This means the change in white vote was 2.5 times as important as the high black turnout.

Of course, all I have done here is simulate a low-black-turnout, normal-white-GOP-support election by fiddling with the numbers in a spreadsheet. You could pick different values if you want and get somewhat different magnitudes. But there is no plausible baseline in which changes in black turnout contributed more to the Jones victory than changes in the white vote.

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.

The Boring Story of the 2016 Election

Matt Yglesias is basically right about what happened in the 2016 election. Despite the elaborate theories that have been floated over the past few months, the real story as told by the exit polls is very boring: Donald Trump won because Hillary Clinton was an extremely unpopular candidate.

Donald Trump did not win because of a surge of white support. Indeed he got less white support than Romney got in 2012. Nor did Trump win because he got a surge from other race+gender groups. The exit polls show him doing slightly better with black men, black women, and latino women than Romney did, but basically he just hovered around Romney’s numbers with every race+gender group, doing slightly worse than Romney overall.

However, support for Hillary was way below Obama’s 2012 levels, with defectors turning to a third party. Clinton did worse with every single race+gender combo except white women, where she improved Obama’s outcome by a single point. Clinton did not lose all this support to Donald. She lost it into the abyss. Voters didn’t like her but they weren’t wooed by Trump.

Some Pundits Understood This
What’s a bit odd about the post-election punditry is that a good number of pundits understood these basic demographic mechanics well in advance of the election outcome. For instance, Jamelle Bouie perfectly nailed it in February of 2016:

If these issues [of Trump creating deep antipathy among women, people of color, and young people] are borne out in a general election, then Trump will have an even larger problem than negative attacks. He’ll have a negative electoral map. With abysmal ratings among blacks and Latinos, Trump is uniquely unsuited to this year’s demographics, which—all things equal—has a modest tilt toward Democrats. With Marco Rubio or John Kasich, Republicans might have a chance with minority voters. With Trump, that’s gone. To win, he would need to bring a massive influx of new white voters and create a further swing towards Republicans among existing white voters, all without alienating moderate whites or sparking counter-mobilization from nonwhites.

As Bouie notes, if Trump’s politicking caused an enormous swing in the voting choices of women, people of color, and young people towards the Democratic nominee (here Clinton), then the only way he could have won is by running up the score among white voters. It turns out Trump’s politicking did not cause any noticeable swing of the voting choices of women, people of color, and young people, and so he did not need to run up the score among white voters, which is something he failed to do entirely.

Unsatisfying Story
So the overall story the data tells us is that Trump won with less white support than Romney because he managed to hold strong enough with female and nonwhite voters and because Clinton was so unpopular that she bled a significant enough portion of Obama’s coalition into the abyss.

The lack of attention to this story of Trump’s win makes sense because it is satisfying to basically nobody.

Liberals do not like it because they want Trump to mean some of their identitarian arguments are true and because it is extremely humiliating to the liberal establishment in general that their hand-picked candidate was world-historically weak. After writing delusional arguments saying the plain fact of Clinton being bad at politics (something Clinton herself admits) was actually wrong, it’s easy to understand why the post-election truth that Clinton lost because she’s very bad at politics is not one they rush to embrace.

Conservatives do not like it because they want Trump to mean at least something about how voters are not happy with liberal overreach.

And leftists do not like it because they want Trump to mean at least something about how the Democratic party’s refusal to embrace a transformative economic message is dooming it.

Some of these narratives could even be true in general about our political moment. But they are not explanations of what happened here. Clinton lost because Clinton was a really bad candidate. If you had replaced her with almost anyone else, they would have beaten Donald Trump. Bernie would have won. O’Malley would have won. And Barack Obama would have dominated in an absolute landslide.