Anyone who tells you they know what is going to happen in the Alabama special election today is lying, either to you or themselves. But one thing's for sure: No matter what happens, we're going to be talking about Roy Moore for a long time.
It really is almost impossible to tell who's going to win and become the Heart of Dixie's next senator. To take just one vivid illustration, the day before the election two polls were released. One, from Fox News, showed Doug Jones, the Democrat, ahead by 10 points. The other, from Emerson College, showed Moore, the Republican credibly accused of harassing and groping teenage girls when he was in his 30s, ahead by 9.
One reason it has been so hard to poll this race is that it's difficult to tell whether voters are telling pollsters the truth. There's probably a lot of "social desirability bias" — where people give what they think the socially acceptable answer is — at work, but we don't know how much. How many Republicans don't want to admit they're voting for a Democrat? How many others don't want to admit they're voting for a man accused of molesting a 14-year-old?
It certainly seems that many Alabamians aren't too happy about all the attention they're getting, particularly when it revolves around Moore, long one of the most controversial figures in the state. Even before anyone knew about his alleged fancy for girls unsullied by the passage of too many years, he represented something many people there wanted to leave behind: religious fundamentalism joined to a hateful politics (Moore is a birther who has said that homosexuality should be illegal and Muslims should be barred from serving in Congress, and who also apparently believes that the last time America was great was when we had slavery).
But should Moore win, the message from Alabama voters will be clear: Suck it, libs.
While Moore has his ardent fans, more than anything else, this election may wind up being the perfect embodiment of the common belief on the right that anything that makes liberals mad must be good. As Alabama columnist Kyle Whitmire recently wrote, "If The Washington Post ran a banner headline tomorrow saying, 'Antifreeze is poison, don't drink it,' a sizable number of Alabamians would be dead tomorrow."
You hear something similar in testimony from voter after voter: Sure, maybe Moore stalked malls and high schools preying on teenage girls, but what am I going to do — vote for a Democrat? It's the purest expression of negative partisanship, the tendency of voters on both sides to be motivated much more strongly by dislike of the other party than by affection for their own. In 2016, Donald Trump showed how powerful negative partisanship can be — he did no worse among Republican voters than Mitt Romney or John McCain did, despite all the misgivings so many of them supposedly had — and the Alabama election is providing an even more vivid illustration.
It also shows the degree to which the GOP today is emphatically a Southern party, notwithstanding the fact that it's currently led by a New Yorker. It isn't just that the party depends on Southern whites for its successes in Congress and the electoral college, it's also the fact that the party's values are those of the South. The Southern economic model — low taxes, no unions, as little environmental and worker safety regulations as possible — is one Republicans are trying to spread to the rest of the country. The South is where the party's ideas about education and reproductive rights find their fullest expression. And the South is ground zero for the kind of vote suppression efforts that Republicans would like to take national. As Alabama's chief election official (a Republican, of course) said, "As long as I'm secretary of state of Alabama, you're going to have to show some initiative to become a registered voter in this state."
Even if Jones should prevail, the stain of Moore will still be on the GOP, regardless of the efforts many Republicans made to distance themselves from him. The fact that there are no other elections taking place, and Moore's rather colorful presence, has given this race a larger media presence than any Senate election in memory. Moore has become one of the most famous politicians in America, and you can bet that Democrats will be hanging the Republican Party's support of him around its neck at every opportunity they get.
Which is why Republicans will lose either way. Either Moore will win, and they'll have to deal with him representing their party for years. Or Moore will lose, which would be a humiliating defeat for President Trump and the GOP — and they'll still pay a price for him having been their nominee. Either way, we'll be hearing the name "Roy Moore" for some time to come.