By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News
With less than two weeks to go until the March 3 primary elections in Alabama, it is officially the home stretch in the race for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate. Just like in an actual horse race where thoroughbreds start making their moves when they round the final turn, the candidates who have been jockeying for position the last several months are now racing toward the finish line in a full gallop.
Our recent Alabama Daily News / Mason-Dixon poll showed that among likely Republican voters, 31% would choose former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, 29% would choose former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville and 17% would choose Congressman Bradley Byrne. A lot has happened since that Feb. 4-6 poll and I expect the numbers have tightened some, but those three candidates are clearly the top contenders in the race.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from our poll and other recent ones is that Sessions has not run away with this race as many expected. Under Alabama law, it takes a candidate claiming a majority of the votes - 50% plus one - to win the race outright. If nobody meets that threshold, a runoff election is held between the top two vote earners. Had you asked me a month ago, I would have told you that Sessions stood a good chance of winning more than 50% of the vote and thus avoiding a runoff (actually, I did tell you that almost exactly a month ago in my last column). That of course is still possible, but unlikely.
Up until now, the candidates have been mostly promoting their own positive image to voters: Sessions as the 20-year Senate veteran who supported the Trump agenda before Trump did; Tuberville as the non-politician outsider whose lack of government experience is a virtue; Byrne the hard-working congressman who fights to advance the conservative cause in Washington. However, now we’ve entered the “contrast” phase of the race when candidates attempt to draw distinctions from one another, mostly in the form of attacks. As of this writing, all three of these top candidates have launched negative ads against the other two. In fact, one reason I sense that Byrne may have closed the gap is that both Sessions and Tuberville are attacking him, which wouldn’t be necessary if he were still 12 points behind.
For the candidates and their staffs, the last ten days of a high stakes campaign is a whirlwind. It involves filling a schedule to the brim with campaign events, organizing volunteers for get-out-the-vote efforts, and, of course, putting out the campaign’s final advertising spots. You’ve no doubt been inundated with a hefty amount of campaign advertising up to this point, but that’s nothing compared to what you’ll see in the coming days. Just like retail advertisers, campaigns try to reach audiences through multiple media, including television, radio, newspapers, direct mail and digital platforms. Though they all serve a purpose - and digital is taking up a greater and greater share of the ad budget these days - it’s television that really moves the needle when it comes to campaigns. That’s why you’ll barely be able to turn on your TV between now and election day without seeing at least a few campaign ads. Though we political junkies have been glued to this race for months, right now is when most voters start really tuning in, and campaigns need to be on air to meet them.
According to that aforementioned poll, a full 16% of the GOP voters were still undecided in the race. That’s a huge slice of the electorate up for grabs, and how it breaks will determine who is left standing in the runoff. Having never trailed in any poll throughout the race, Sessions is probably a lock for the runoff, but whom will he face? That’s a good question. Tuberville has the “outsider” image that appeals to many voters these days, but Byrne has the strongest organization that really comes in handy when getting out the vote on election day. Either candidate would be competitive with Sessions in a runoff.
There are a few things to keep in mind about runoff elections. First, the second-place candidate usually closes the gap at least some with the first-place candidate. Factors that can affect this include endorsements from eliminated candidates and a smaller voter universe that no longer benefits the better-known candidate to such a large degree. In other words, the people who vote in runoffs are usually highly engaged politically and less likely to just choose a candidate because that’s the only name they recognize.
Another interesting factor this year is a new state law change that shortens the time period between the primary election and the runoff. It is now four weeks rather than six weeks as it used to be. That two week change can make a big difference for a campaign in terms of fundraising and advertising. This shortened period will tend to benefit the better-organized, better-funded campaigns that are prepared to transition into a runoff scenario. Even as they try to do what it takes to finish in the top two, campaign managers have to be careful not to exhaust all their resources and have nothing left in the tank when the runoff starts.
Of course, the ultimate winner of the GOP nomination gets to face incumbent Democratic Sen. Doug Jones in November. But that's a conversation for another day.
It’s fun to discuss the latest polls and insider talk, especially when you’ve spent most of your life in politics like me. However, when it comes to casting your own vote, try not to get caught up in the horse race and rather choose the candidates that best align with your beliefs, worldview and goals. We’ll be covering the campaigns through election day and into the runoffs at Alabama Daily News and our news partners throughout the state. You can follow along by signing up for our free morning newsletter email at www.ALDailyNews.com.