Columns Government & Politics Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion Politics

Whites, not blacks, were the key to Doug Jones’ victory

Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Doug Jones greets supporters and voters outside Bethal Baptist Church Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017, in Birmingham , Ala. Jones is facing Republican Roy Moore. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Since Doug Jones’ stunning defeat of Roy Moore in Alabama last week, the idea has taken hold that African Americans deserve the credit.

“African American Voters Made Doug Jones a U.S. Senator in Alabama,” announced the Atlantic. “Democrats Draw Vivid Lesson From Alabama: Mobilize Black Voters,” ran the headline in the New York Times.

“Black Christians were the dark horse,” declared Larycia Hawkins here at RNS. “And they, like the black horse of the apocalypse, with the scales of justice in hand said, ‘Not on our watch, Roy Moore.'”

There is something terrific about this idea, trading as it does on the just comeuppance of a candidate who harked back to the bad old days of massive resistance to federal law. The trouble is: It’s really not true.

Let’s look at the numbers.

In 2012 (there was no Alabama exit poll in 2016), African Americans constituted 28 percent of the electorate — 18 percent women and 10 percent men. The exit poll from last week’s election, in which 40 percent fewer Alabamians voted, puts African-American turnout at 29 percent — 17 percent women and 11 percent men (the extra point presumably the result of totaling the fractions).

As for the electoral choice, 96 percent of black voters went for Doug Jones as compared to 95 percent for Barack Obama — black women upping their support for the Democrat from 95 percent to 98 percent even as black men dropped theirs from 96 percent to 93 percent.

The long and the short of it is that the African-American vote last week was essentially identical to what it was when Obama lost the state to Mitt Romney by 23 points (61 percent to 38 percent). The slightly greater proportion of the vote, the slightly higher level of support for the Democrat, was not enough to account for Jones’ 1.5-point margin of victory.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the racial ledger, while the white proportion of the vote slipped a bit from 68 percent in 2012 to 66 percent in 2017, there was a huge difference in the partisan divide.

In 2012, 15 percent of white Alabamians voted for Obama. In 2017, 30 percent of them voted for Jones. The shift included 10 points worth of white evangelicals, whose vote for the Republican dropped from 90 percent to 80 percent — enough to spell the difference between victory and defeat.

None of this is to say that African Americans weren’t critical to Jones’ success. Turning out for him as they did for Obama, they provided 28 percent of the votes he needed to win. But it was the 20 percent that came from whites (compared to 10 percent for Obama) that made it possible for a Democrat to represent Alabama in the U.S. Senate for the first time in a quarter century.

Of course, you can’t give high moral marks to Alabama’s white community for only giving two-thirds of its votes to the likes of Roy Moore. That eight-in-10 rather than the usual nine-in-10 white evangelicals supported this most flawed of Republican candidates is even less reason to break out the champagne.

But admission to Heaven is not by group but by individual. Some 67,000 individual white Alabamians who would otherwise have voted Republican cast their ballots for Doug Jones last Tuesday. They deserve to be recognized.

This story is available for republication.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

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