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December Alabama Special Election

By Ella Wawrzynek in Opinion & Politics


How AL voted in the December special election. Map created by Carter Hanson.

A few notes on the Alabama Special Senate Election:


We saw something historic on Tuesday the 12th of December.

In a rare occurrence for modern times, there was no conventional wisdom in the modern media about who would win.

Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight’s first rule of polling is that the conventional wisdom always guesses the polling error in the wrong direction. And this seems to hold, especially well in many recent elections with national recognition:

  • Hillary Clinton was leading the 2016 polls by about a 3-point lead, she lost by about that much, even though the mainstream media was sure she would win.

  • In Georgia’s 6th district senate special election last June, the conventional wisdom held that Jon Ossoff, the Democrat, might just squeak by with a win, even in the red state. He barely lost.

  • Polls in Virginia before last election day (Nov. 7th), put Democrat Ralph Northam ahead with a 3-point lead, the conventional wisdom said the Republican Ed Gillespie would win by a small margin. Northam won by 9 points (a bigger polling error than President Trump’s win in Nov. 2016!).


The Alabama race was the race nobody could call, for all the right reasons. The polls were inconsistent and showed, even just days before, anywhere from a 9-point win for Judge Roy Moore to a 10-point lead for senator-elect Doug Jones. But the political pundits didn’t posit what that meant, didn’t leach off each other’s predictions until everyone “knew” which way the race would go. Everyone accounted for the nuances and caveats that come with any election, but are often lost to gut guesses and other people’s intuition.

The result itself I would opine, is not all that surprising. I was not expecting it, but I was not surprised. There were a myriad of unusual circumstances, from the timing to Moore and Jones’ previous reputations, the sexual assault allegations and disordered endorsements. The culmination of these factors as well as other things pointed toward a tight race, and a narrow win. That a democrat won this race, even in a state where a generic democrat could almost never win, while unexpected, was not surprising.

I would even go further and say this result is not terribly unprecedented either. The last time an Alabama senate election was won by a Democrat was in 1992 by the sitting senior senator from Alabama, Senator Richard Shelby, before he switched parties in 1994. But there is a much more recent example of an unexpected result. The 2010 Massachusetts special senate election for the seat of the late Democratic Senator, Ted Kennedy. It was held in January of 2010, a little over a year after former President Obama was elected, similar to this race, as Trump was elected a little over a year ago. In that race another Democrat was expected to win, but the republican candidate, Senator Scott Brown, won the race with 59.1% of the vote.


So was this race historic? Yes of course, as was it meaningful for Congress, the political environment, and the midterms next November. However the truly astonishing occurrence was the lack of conventional wisdom and pundits calling the race days before the polls even opened.


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