On CNN Wednesday morning, a major Southern Baptist leader argued that Roy Moore lost the Alabama Senate election because evangelicals could not vote for him. He also explained why this could be true, despite exit polls showing 80 percent of self-described evangelicals did vote for Moore.
“An incredible number of evangelical Christians said, this is just a bridge too far. We cannot turn out to vote for this candidate. They would not and could not vote for a pro-abortion candidate. They would not and could not, as it turned out, vote for Roy Moore. And into that vacuum came Doug Jones winning the election tonight,” R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and host of The Briefing, told CNN’s Don Lemon.
Lemon pointed out that Moore received 80 percent of the votes from self-identified “white evangelical Christians.” Mohler pointed out, however, that white evangelicals only made up 44 percent of the vote, as opposed to the 47 percent in the 2008 and 2012 elections. That number was likely even higher in 2016, though exit polls on white evangelical turnout from last year are surprisingly hard to find. While 2 million people voted last November, only 1.3 million voted on Tuesday, and other groups turned out to vote at higher percentages.
“Well, [Moore] got 80% of what were identified as evangelicals in exit polling. That really doesn’t take into consideration the fact that he lost because so many evangelicals didn’t show up,” Mohler explained. “Therefore, weren’t in the exit polling. That’s the big story. Given the percentage of evangelical voters in Alabama, it’s virtually inconceivable that a candidate supported by evangelicals could lose. This candidate did, which meant he did not have solid support amongst evangelicals. That’s the big story, especially in a state like Alabama.”
The Alabama Senate race came down to turnout. African-Americans favored Jones by wide margins (96 percent to 4 percent for Moore), and made up 29 percent of the electorate. Women (51 percent of the vote) backed Jones (57 percent) over Moore (41 percent).
“The big story here,” Mohler noted, was “the vacuum created by the fact that so many evangelicals did not turn out as expected and as the pattern would indicate.”
The difficulty with this narrative, and polling in general, is that African-Americans are more likely (30 percent) than white Americans (13 percent) to hold evangelical beliefs. White evangelicals still outnumber black evangelicals in aggregate, but belief crosses the racial divide. Evangelical candidates like Roy Moore need to appeal across racial lines, but that may not be politically feasible.
Before the sexual assault allegations, Moore’s support among evangelicals seemed legendary. This group heavily favored Moore in the primary, helping him to defeat Luther Strange. A full 53 pastors signed a letter backing Moore in August, but many of them distanced themselves from the candidate after the allegations broke last month.
One poll found that 37 percent of evangelicals said they were “more likely” to vote for Moore after the allegations. Even so, there were powerful winds against Moore. Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore charged evangelicals backing Moore with “idolatry.”
Even Jeremy Ragland, a pastor in Alabama who hosted Moore for a “God and Country” event, told PJ Media he almost uninvited the Republican, and insisted that Moore avoid any political subjects during his speech.
“It’s stunning that not one major evangelical leader or pastor in the state of Alabama stood with Roy Moore and supported Roy Moore publicly once those accusations were made,” Al Mohler told CNN. “We’re talking about the Republican Party learning a very hard lesson here about the limits of Republican conservative Christian tolerance when it comes to candidates.”
While a few signatories of the pastor’s letter said they wouldn’t withdraw their endorsement, even Ragland refused to publicly endorse Moore after the allegations.
Mohler contrasted this from the 2016 election. “If you look at the 2016 presidential election, look at all the prominent evangelicals who are willing to stand publicly to call for voters to vote for Donald Trump. Notice how that didn’t happen in Alabama.”
Even those who did vote for Moore were less likely than Jones supporters to “strongly favor” their candidate. Of the 65 percent who did strongly back their candidate, 59 percent voted for Jones and 41 percent backed Moore. Among voters who supported their candidate with reservations (21 percent), 70 percent backed Moore while only 29 percent voted for Jones.
Overall, 56 percent of voters had an unfavorable opinion of Moore, while only 41 percent had a favorable view of him. This means quite a few Moore voters had an unfavorable opinion of him.
On Tuesday, a Politico/Morning Consult poll reported that 33 percent of multi-ethnic evangelicals nationwide thought the allegations against Moore were credible, while 22 percent did not. Almost half (44 percent) said they did not know or had no opinion.
Even so, more than half (52 percent) of American evangelicals said the U.S. Senate should have expelled Moore if he had won the race, while only 22 percent said the Senate should not have expelled him.
More than 4 in 10 (42 percent) said it was wrong for the Republican National Committee to resume its financial support for Moore, while only 28 percent said it was the right thing to do.
Evangelical political goals took a beating on Tuesday, especially when it came to the issue of abortion. Even so, Doug Jones will have to run for re-election in 2020, and Democrats are on unfriendly turf for the 2018 Senate elections.
Evangelical leaders should take this opportunity to distance themselves from Moore, and to make it clear that tens of thousands of believers refused to vote in the election due to Moore’s moral failings. That said, the evangelical movement must prove that Moore is the aberration, not the norm.
It is essential for the Republican challenger to Doug Jones in 2020 to be entirely above board, and it would help if Steve Bannon stayed far away.