On Thursday, the U.S. Senate race in Alabama became the latest avenue of American life to be rocked by a scandal involving improper sexual conduct. The Washington Post reported allegations that Republican Roy Moore pursued relationships with four teenage girls, one of whom was 14 at the time of a sexual encounter with Moore. Moore has unequivocally denied the report.
The Alabama special election was already getting national attention as one of the fronts upon which former Trump adviser Steve Bannon said he would be waging his war against the Republican establishment, so the race has several facets to be closely watched — social, cultural and, yes, political.
Although it’s difficult to predict what effect a scandal will have on an election, here’s what we’re looking at and considering as it unfolds.
Where did the race stand before the Post story?
The five most recent public pollsters to survey the race — all before Thursday’s allegations — found, on average, Moore ahead of his Democratic opponent, Doug Jones, 48 percent to 42 percent. That sounds like a pretty decent lead until you realize that President Trump won Alabama by 28 points in 2016.
Why was Moore underperforming?
Alabama is a ruby-red state, but Moore has a had a long and controversial record there — which might explain why he’s not doing as well as you might expect for a Republican.
Polls differ a bit on why Moore has been struggling, but they all agree that he’s having trouble with voters who don’t identify as evangelical. (Moore has been doing fine among Alabama’s heavily evangelical Republican base.) Hillary Clinton won non-evangelical voters in Alabama by 12 percentage points in 2016, according to the Cooperative Congressional Election Study. But Moore is doing much worse than Trump did among that group. Jones was leading Moore among non-evangelical voters by around 40 points, according to a JMC Analytics and Polling survey and an Opinion Savvy poll.
Another weakness for Moore? Alabama’s independent voters. Both a Fox News poll and the Opinion Savvy poll have Jones winning independents even though Trump carried them in Alabama by 49 percentage points according to the CCES.
It’s possible that Moore has already lost the Alabama voters who would have been most likely to abandon him in light of the Post story. That said, the Fox News poll found that 42 percent of Moore’s supporters had reservations about him, so either they’ve made their peace voting for a candidate they see as flawed or they already have one foot out the door and the Post story could send them the rest of the way.
What will Republican officials do?
How national Republicans react to the scandal could do quite a bit to tip the balance of the race, forcing talk of the scandal into the conservative media and increasing pressure on Moore and his campaign.
Senators from the establishment wing of the Republican Party who have already been at odds with the Bannon-esque contours of the Moore campaign were quick to speak out. Sen. Lisa Murkowsi of Alaska and Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona were among the first to tell reporters that if the reports of sexual conduct with minors were true, Moore should resign from the race. Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania said much the same, and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made a statement to the same effect.
Republican elected officials, perhaps aware that Moore was already problematic, seem to be in a holding pattern, loath to out-and-out call for him to drop out (and risk angering the base) but far from willing to vouch for Moore. Arizona Sen. John McCain went the furthest of his caucus, calling the allegations “disturbing” and “disqualifying.”
How will Trump react?
The president is, as always, a wild card. Trump didn’t endorse Moore in the primary, instead favoring McConnell’s choice of Luther Strange. But in the waning days of the race, Trump seemed to express some regret with his decision, and after Moore won, he deleted some tweets expressing support for Strange.
Trump, who has weathered his own sex scandals, seems to always take the line of fighting allegations, so he might stand by Moore. Or, ever eager for approval from the electorate, Trump might bide his time to see how conservative media reacts, gauging how he thinks his base might take the news — as “fake news” or troubling allegations involving teenage girls.
How will the conservative media react?
News of the Post story first made its way onto the internet by way of a Breitbart report headlined, “After Endorsing Democrat in Alabama, Bezos’s Washington Post Plans to hit Roy Moore With Allegations of Inappropriate Relations with Teenagers; Judge Claims Smear Campaign.” Breitbart is, of course, Bannon’s domain, and Moore is Bannon’s horse in the race — so the website’s sympathetic coverage makes sense. How Fox News and other conservative outlets cover the scandal could play a part in how the Republican base comes to view it.
Trump won the presidency despite allegations of sexual assault, but the allegations against Moore involve underage girls, which might change how Republican voters view the scandal. The allegations led the right-leaning Drudge Report and Washington Examiner on Thursday evening, as well as Fox News’s homepage.
Can Moore be replaced on the ballot? Could there be a write-in campaign?
No and yes.
Moore’s name will appear on the ballot — it’s too late to switch it out for the Dec. 12 election — but there’s certainly still a chance for Republicans to launch a write-in campaign. Who’s at the top of the list? Strange. Murkowski, who famously won a write-in victory of her own, has already said that she’s in touch with Strange about this very thing. Should Moore stay in the race — as he has said he will — and Strange jumps in, the Republican vote could split. That would be good news for Jones.
Does it matter that Moore ran as a “values” candidate?
How the GOP base in Alabama reacts to this story is certainly the big looming question in all of this. Moore has made his name in the state as a fierce champion of evangelical Christian values, often testing the limits of democratic governance along the way; he was removed from the Alabama Supreme Court in 2003 for refusing to take down a replica of the Ten Commandments that stood in front of the court.
Allegations of sexual contact with children are incredibly serious, but it remains an open question whether the state’s Republican voters will see the story as true or not. As the past year has shown, in a highly politicized and polarized national environment, every story seems to take on political shading, including the allegations of sexual assault against men in positions of power. Party loyalty overrode personal affront for many Republican voters in 2016. And Clinton and other Democratic politicians, for instance, were quickly linked to Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein — who has been accused of a litany of wrongdoings, from harassment to rape — given his donations to various Democratic campaigns.
In some ways, the allegations against Moore might test how much American society, in all corners, has absorbed the national conversation on sexual assault allegations. Emerging narratives around that conversation feature a hope that more credibility is being lent to victim allegations. But some also fear witch hunts of powerful men. The next few weeks will surely tell us more about how Alabama voters are grappling with this cultural sea change.
Are there precedents we can look to?
There are past political scandals that involved underage or teenage victims, though most came before the highly polarized political environment of the past 10 years and most candidates dropped out of the race before election day.
In 1990, Republican Jon Grunseth dropped out of the Minnesota gubernatorial race after allegations of sexual misconduct. Among these allegations were that he had encouraged two girls — one 13, the other 14 — to take a nude swim with him. Grunseth’s primary challenger, Arne Carlson eventually won the race as a write-in candidate.
In 1983, the U.S. House formally censured two members, Republican Dan Crane and Democrat Gerry Studds, for sexual relationships with 17-year-old pages. Both ran for re-election, with Crane losing and Studds winning.
In 2006, Republican Mark Foley resigned from office after he was accused of sending explicit text messages to an underage former page. Foley’s name was kept on the ballot, and Democrats won the seat.
Alabama itself is fresh off another sex scandal (though it didn’t involve anyone underage). Republican Gov. Robert Bentley resigned from office in April as he was facing impeachment for allegedly having used his office to cover up an extramarital affair. His approval rating dropped precipitously after the revelation of the affair, showing perhaps, that there are instances when moral outrage outweighs partisan interest.
Is there empirical research on how much “scandals” can change electoral outcomes?
One paper from researchers who looked at senators running for re-election from 1974 to 2008 estimated that scandals involving immoral behavior cost the scandal-plagued candidate 6.5 percentage points and raised his opponent’s vote share 6.5 points, for a net change of 13 points. We don’t know if the Alabama race will move that much, but any penalty approaching that size would be more than enough to significantly darken Moore’s prospects of winning this Senate seat.