Alabama did not want a serious senator who would bring good things to the state and the nation. That’s the solid conclusion of the 2020 senatorial race in Alabama. But let’s talk about why.
Donald John Trump would never have been nominated in 2016, much less elected, without finding a way to improve his stature, to make him seem like a real candidate. His first trick was to be a big asshole in announcing his run. That got enough attention to get his polls to a place he could get in the early debates. Then, standing next to prominent Republican senators, he bullied them, which further inflated his stature to the point he polled better and could start winning primaries. The media kept its eyes trained on him like he was a rabid unicorn, which kept him nice and plump all the way to the nomination, and once nominated his stature was fully established as a Republican-approved candidate to be the actual president.
Jones entered the special election with strong stature of his own, as did Roy Moore. But Moore got badly damaged, not by being the arrogant tool of the devil that he acts like, but because of national reporting on decades-old creepy behavior. Between that and the Black vote, Jones won that election (or, perhaps, Moore lost it).
Normally, incumbency is a strong part of stature. But Alabama loves college football in a way that could only be called a fetish. Tuberville was never a serious candidate, but he had the fetishized stature to get the nomination in a runoff, and too few Alabamians care about reasonable government, so that stature alone was enough to make him the senator.
The main takeaway here is that if you’re running for an office, you have to find some way to gain sufficient stature. Debates are a great way to do that, but Alabama Republicans are well-known for ducking debates, because they don’t want to lose or give a Democrat any profile.
Messaging matters, not so much the message.
Tuberville has no real agenda, just like Donald John Trump. The message doesn’t matter. Most voters aren’t listening anyway.
Up in Maine, Senator Collins ran an add against Sarah Gideon with the basic message that Gideon had all these priorities. It got a broadened run as Democrats made fun of it for highlighting Gideon’s positively-polling positions. I think the message had nothing to do with a tangle of number-one-priorities, but it was all about saying: “Sarah Gideon wants to make all these fucking changes, Maine. Are you ready for all these fucking changes?” In other words, the gut-level of the ad wasn’t anything about any of the issues. It was a how-dare-she for having ideas, for having a platform.
There’s a squint-test in graphics design. You squint your eyes so you can’t really see the content, just the contrast of white-space to text or graphics. You want to see a nice balance there. The folks doing ads for the Democrats need to do their own squint-tests with their ads. Fuck the message, make sure the sound and shape of the thing appeals to the gut of the people you’re trying to reach.
Even something as simple as Jones’ ads ending with him indoors saying he approved the ad—he should have been in some kind of outdoor shot, maybe standing in the middle of a rural highway—missed the signal. (Likely done that way to seem relatable re: COVID-19 stay-at-home, too few Alabamians care about protecting their state from a novel and potentially-deadly virus, so it didn’t really hit as maybe it should have.) Dumb shit plays with a lot of people (and not just in the south). If Jones had done one of those stunt-ads (blow up a tree stump, slap handcuffs on someone in a non-sexual context, or even cook a steak on a grill), it would have boosted him with the folks who went with Tuberville. Most liberals would have shrugged or maybe laughed without it affecting their vote.
Republicans don’t care about policy. They care about the emotion of the message. “Democrats are gonna try to stop robocalls from bugging you all the time” is an effective Republican message, because it says the Democrats will deprive you of something, even something you hate.
Liberals mostly don’t care about that hokey bullshit. As long as the policy is there and thoughtful, you’ll get their votes.
If Democrats ran a message “Republicans are blocking changing the borders of Florida to make it look like an AR-15” the voters would eat it up down there. Boom, six more Democratic senators, three new states, and a reconfigured Florida that looks like a gun, plus three states that look like the mud that rifle was dropped in. (In all probability, envy would then spark several other southern states to split up so they could shape themselves into firearms, cannons, trebuchets, whatever. And in a generation we’d have to teach kids why the map looks like a homicidal six-year-old drew it.)
Upton Sinclair was right: hit them in the gut.
The policy obviously doesn’t matter, because Tuberville doesn’t have policy. Donald John Trump hasn’t policy. For a large group of people, the policy is not even secondary to the tone and package. It just doesn’t factor in for them. They’ll buy a dump in a box marked guaranteed over a quality product.
(Wherein I was going to throw a few bones about the future, but the present is still not officially called, so skipping to the end.
I will say of the presidential race, it was either the-economy-stupid, or it was nearly the-economy-stupid. While other factors like racism and deal-with-devil-Republicans (no gun laws, anti-abortion, anti-taxes, etc.) were certainly factors, I don’t think it’s as close as it is (was) without a strong recovery. The flip-side is that most incumbents would have taken this race handily.)
Started working on a new book. Hum.