“This Is a National Trend”

What the Alabama results tell us about the country’s political state of play.

Sen.-elect Doug Jones and wife, Louise Jones, greet supporters during his election night gathering at the Sheraton Hotel on Tuesday in Birmingham, Alabama.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

On Tuesday night, Doug Jones upset Roy Moore to become Alabama’s junior senator. This result was made possible by a number of factors, including the credible allegations of sexual assault and harassment against Moore from several Alabama women. The fact that the women were as young as 14 when the incidents were said to occur did not stop the president from heartily endorsing Moore, a fellow birther who once stated that homosexual conduct should be illegal. Jones, meanwhile, has now established himself as a figure to watch in Democratic politics.

Jonathan Martin, a national political correspondent for the New York Times, has been extensively covering the campaign, and is known for—among other things—his expertise on the politics of the American South. We spoke by phone past midnight Alabama time Wednesday morning, after the results had come in. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed Doug Jones’ political skill, how Democrats were able to motivate black voters, and what the results might tell us about 2018.

Isaac Chotiner: It’s late and we are both tired, so I will start with a clichéd question: Have you ever covered a race like this?

Jonathan Martin: I don’t think I have. Not one with this many twists and turns. I covered the Scott Brown special election [in Massachusetts] and that is probably the best analogy in terms of the environment and just how unlikely the result was—at least at the outset. Although I would say that in both cases, Isaac, by the day before the election, or the weekend before the election, you could sort of tell on the ground where it was moving. I was more confident that Brown would win than I was here in Alabama, but two things happened on Saturday night that got me thinking that the conventional wisdom was wrong. As you recall, the conventional wisdom last week really turned sharply against Jones.

The first thing was that I got an email for a high-level Alabama Republican who said [he or she was] hearing a lot about Democratic turnout efforts in the black community; it sounds like the real thing; Jones could actually win. I was really struck by that. And then, at the same time, I was talking to a half-dozen Alabama progressives to moderates, shall we say, and almost every one of them thought Jones was going to win. Now, there is nobody who is more pessimistic or fatalistic than Alabama liberals. [Laughs.] They have been through this so many times before. They get their hopes up and then their hopes are dashed. They are always glass-half-empty people. And when I heard this crowd say, “We think Jones is going to win,” you know, even they were letting themselves think this, I thought, “Hmmm, maybe this thing is possible.”

And then on Sunday, I was in Selma, which is in the heart of the Black Belt in this state—the most heavily African-American part of the state, but the “Black” refers to the soil color, not the race of the residents. I was at church and [former Massachusetts] Gov. Deval Patrick was there, and he spoke. What I was struck by was less his speech than that the pastor really urged the folks in the congregation to come out and vote, suggesting that they were the sheep and he was the shepherd of the flock and they ought to listen to their shepherd, borrowing from scripture. I thought that was striking. I walked out to the lobby of the church and sure enough there were sample ballots. I went out to the church parking lot and every car had a Doug Jones piece of literature on the windshield. I then drove to a different part of Selma where there is a large black church called the Brown Memorial Chapel, which is famous in civil rights history; it’s basically where the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge began, and where folks fled back to after they were beaten on Bloody Sunday. Driving around that church, I saw every car had a Jones piece of lit. So then I thought, “OK, this turnout operation is pretty serious. They have these churches covered.”

It seems like there are three ways to read this turnout. One is that the Jones campaign had an incredible turnout operation. Two is that the presence of Roy Moore, who has, let’s say, controversial racial statements in his past, and support from President Trump, motivated black voters. And three is that Doug Jones has an impressive biography that might appeal to African American voters. How would you rank these, or are there others I am not thinking about?

One, two, and three. I think you listed the order yourself. Two closer to one than three closer to two. But I think that’s basically it. We did a story on Monday in the paper about the multimillion-dollar turnout effort. It was stealthy. The Democrats were so spooked about being outed as running this campaign from Washington: [adopts voice] The hidden hand of the national liberal party determining who was going to win in Alabama.

They were very concerned about the perception of running this campaign. Chuck Schumer, at a press conference, repeatedly said to me, “This is an Alabama campaign.” He was trying to kind of convince himself. Of course Democrats in Washington were watching this closely and of course they poured millions of dollars in. They just did it quietly. But there was an immense effort to turn out progressive voters in this state, and persuade gettable moderates and center-right voters here, and that clearly was a big factor.

I do think in addition to that there was a motivation among a block of voters that didn’t really require GOTV efforts, as the pros call it. You talk to people in this state who have college degrees and they were sick of Moore well before women came out and accused him of sexual misconduct. They have been living with Roy Moore for decades and don’t like him. Even Republicans were kind of embarrassed by him—at least those who tend to be more upper class or upper-middle class. And once these women came out, it was more than enough for center-right voters in this state, who can live with Doug Jones.

I read someone say that we were overstating the degree to which the accusations hurt Moore, and understating the degree to which he was already unpopular.

Yeah, that’s exactly right. You heard this repeated 1,000 times when you were down here covering this race, that when Moore reclaimed his seat on the state Supreme Court in 2012, he only won by four points in a presidential year, where there was great turnout for Republicans. General electorate voters here are not terribly fond of Moore. He has a loyal following among evangelicals, and that’s a huge factor in a sort of off-off-year special election primary or runoff. When you are talking about a larger slice of the state’s voters, it’s a different story.

I was impressed with Doug Jones as a candidate: The race he ran, the balance he found between using and not using national Democrats, and the way he was on the stump, the way he went after Moore. Were you also impressed?

Yeah, I was impressed, Isaac. I thought he was one of the better first-time candidates that I have seen run at this level of politics. He was pretty deft at how he handled the campaign, especially in the closing days. He was handed that gift of Sen. Richard Shelby going on television on Sunday, and really kind of lambasting Roy Moore, saying Alabama deserved better. Jones saw that opportunity and used that as a weapon as sort of his final argument with center-right Alabama white voters. He did that repeatedly and effectively in a way that was quite smooth.

And then, at this press conference Monday morning, he was asked about President Obama doing a robocall, which we had reported in our story Sunday night. And the Jones campaign was sort of a bit weary of whether or not to use the call. They had taped it some time ago, but they weren’t sure whether they wanted to actually use it because, as you know, it is a bit of a double-edged sword, because you can motivate some black voters, but you risk turning off some white voters, too. And Jones handled that pretty deftly. [Laughs.] He made some aside about “I’m not totally sure what robocalls we have going on, but I am sure my wife is doing one.” It was classic politician stuff, but a lesser candidate would have gotten bogged down or frozen in the headlights when asked about President Obama like that with 20 cameras in his face.

This is obviously a sui generis race for many reasons, and I don’t want to draw too many lessons from it about the national climate. It seemed like drawing lessons from Virginia made more sense. But is there anything in the results that you think are interesting for 2018?

Yeah, look, I do think that you can draw a line from the results in Virginia to what happened here. Obviously you can’t decouple Moore from the results here, and the sense of shame and embarrassment over him that a lot of educated voters in this state feel, and would not have been replicated if they had nominated a fairly generic candidate of their own. But that said, the kind of sweeping rejection that he had in the most affluent parts of this state, the suburbs in and around Birmingham, places like Mountain Brook and Homewood, these towns I am sure your listeners and readers are starting to become familiar with because they have been referred to so many times in the coverage over the last few months.

Those kind of enclaves are similar to other parts of the country—whether it’s the suburbs of Kansas City or Dallas or Houston or Orange County, California, or San Diego or Philadelphia—yes, it’s a more Southern version and they are a little more conservative, but it’s similar. They are upscale voters who generally lean center or center-right. But they don’t want to be embarrassed by their politicians, and they are uneasy about this president’s style of politics and they are really uncomfortable with his approach and his tone. The euphemism that you hear is, “I wish he wouldn’t tweet as much,” or “I wish he would watch his words.”

What they are actually saying is that they are discomfited by Trump’s style and they wish he would act more presidential. They are just not comfortable with this iteration of the Republican Party. We are talking about Bush and Romney voters here and a lot of them are open to supporting a Republican, but they don’t want to go down the road of someone who is this hard-edged.

At the same time, the vote in some of these rural counties was astonishingly pro-Moore.

Yeah but again, that mirrors Virginia, too. The polarization of downscale and upscale voters is continuing apace and the chasm is growing. And by the way, in some ways, it doesn’t even matter who the candidates are. We saw that in Virginia where you had a candidate in Ralph Northam who had the best biography possible for rural Virginia, and it just didn’t matter in a lot of places. This is a national trend.

Is there any lesson for Democrats here about getting great black turnout for 2018?

I think it is important to have candidates who can speak to African Americans and their experience, and Doug Jones is someone who grew up in a heavily black community, and knows African Americans personally, and has been part of the civil rights fight, given that he prosecuted the Birmingham church bombers. I think those connections matter a lot. And beyond that, I think it is a matter of time and resources. They spent a lot of money trying to motivate black voters, and they spent a lot of time in the black community. This is a cliché that you hear from African Americans, but there is truth to it: Don’t just come around the Sunday before Election Day to church and ask for their vote. You have to put in time before that, and I think Jones proved the wisdom of that.