One of the biggest mistakes many pundits make when assessing an election is simply looking at the public polling at the expense of all other key factors—among them, the strength of the candidate, the strategy of his operatives, and private polling that’s more frequent and accurate than the public soundings. In other words, political analysts often focus on lagging indicators that mask the real story of a race. That may well be the case in next Tuesday’s Senate runoff election in Alabama. Roy Moore has a significant lead in the polls against appointed Sen. Luther Strange, but the incumbent has momentum and a good chance to win, in no small part because President Trump is making a campaign appearance on his behalf Friday.
The Moore-Strange Republican runoff is accurately being framed as a battle between the two factions in the party: the establishment wing, which is rallying behind Strange, and the Breitbart wing, whose leader Steve Bannon is championing Moore. History favors the establishment candidate. When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is engaged in these primary fights, his candidates usually come out on top. The 2014 election cycle featured numerous Republican senators finding themselves vulnerable to hard-line primary challengers, only to prevail thanks to a concerted push to defeat not-ready-for-prime-time opponents.
Republican primary voters may dislike McConnell and party regulars, but when insurgents are outmatched strategically and outgunned financially, establishment opponents typically squeeze out victories. Public polls showed Moore with a huge lead over Strange in the aftermath of the primary’s first round. But since then, Strange and his allies have outspent Moore and his supporters by a whopping margin: $4.77 million to $533,000. One GOP survey, conducted last week for the McConnell-allied Senate Leadership Fund, found Strange only trailing Moore by 1 point (41-40 percent). Even a public pollster (from JMC Analytics) showed the race tightening: It had Moore ahead by 19 points after the first round of balloting but gave him a lead of only 8 points in a follow-up survey conducted last weekend. And the likely impact of Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, who is scheduled to campaign for Strange on Monday, isn’t reflected in the surveys.
The Alabama race is looking like an encore of those messy 2014 Republican showdowns, in which the lack of campaign savvy by insurgents led to their undoing. This time they also have to contend with a show of strength by the two top officeholders in the land. Three years ago, McConnell was in the minority and Barack Obama was president.
At the least, the Alabama runoff will test the proposition that Trump the man is the driver of the Republican Party, not any specific ideology he may represent. With Bannon, his former strategist, helping Moore, the contest has become a battle between Trump and Trumpism. Given that Republican voters have been remarkably loyal to Trump—even when he’s governed at odds with his campaign rhetoric—he should be able to swing enough undecided voters to Strange to push him over the finish line.
The White House’s last-minute engagement in the race, which came as a surprise to the senator’s team, will help offset Strange’s ties to unpopular Republican figures. He was appointed by former Gov. Robert Bentley, who was later forced out of office in the aftermath of a sordid sex scandal. His biggest champion in Washington has been McConnell, who isn’t well-liked with the party base. But with Trump and Pence coming to Alabama in the closing days, Strange is betting that he’ll be associated with two of the most popular figures within his party—and that will overshadow the endorsement Moore received from Rep. Mo Brooks, who finished third in the primary.
The dynamic of this race feels similar to the ugly 2014 primary (and runoff) between Sen. Thad Cochran and Chris McDaniel in neighboring Mississippi. As in this race, McConnell feared the extreme rhetoric of the conservative challenger would taint the Republican Party, and he pulled out all the stops to defeat him. Few analysts expected Cochran to win after narrowly trailing his rival in the first round of balloting. But Cochran prevailed, thanks to relentless opposition research against a flawed candidate and a strong get-out-the-vote effort that even convinced many Democrats to back a longtime Republican.
Strange won’t be getting crossover support in this Republican runoff, but the impact of Trump’s scheduled appearance, says a Strange operative, figures to be a “game changer.” So right now Strange looks like a narrow favorite—even though he’s not leading in a single poll.
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