The first wave of flash polls conducted after Alabama GOP Senate nominee Roy Moore was accused of abusing a 14-year-old girl nearly four decades ago point to a close race between Moore and Democrat Doug Jones.
Since the Washington Post published a story online Thursday afternoon in which four separate women accused Moore of making romantic or sexual advances on them when they were teenagers, four polls — all conducted using less expensive methodologies — have showed the candidates roughly neck-and-neck. The most recently released survey, an automated poll from the Republican-leaning firm JMC Analytics and Polling, shows the Democrat leading by 4 percentage points.
Jones leads Moore in the JMC Analytics poll, 48 percent to 44 percent, with 8 percent undecided or favoring another candidate in Alabama’s Dec. 12 special Senate election. The poll was conducted last Thursday through Saturday.
The previous JMC Analytics survey, conducted in late September and early October, showed Moore ahead by 8 points. JMC conducts landline-only polls administered by an automated interviewer.
Moore has a 4-point lead in a Change Research poll, conducted online last Thursday through Saturday, 44 percent to 40 percent — with a larger share of undecided voters, 16 percent.
The two other surveys were each conducted in a single day — a practice that increases the prospect of error, according to polling experts, because it tends to include the easiest voters to reach. A Gravis Marketing survey, conducted Friday for the blog Big League Politics via automated calls to landlines and online interviews with cell-phone-only voters, had Moore at 48 percent and Jones at 46 percent, with 6 percent undecided.
The other one-day poll was conducted Thursday night — immediately after the Post story about Moore. That survey, conducted by Opinion Savvy for Decision Desk HQ and interviewing voters via automated calls to landlines and mobile respondents via ads or push notifications from their applications, found both candidates knotted at 46 percent.
Each of the new polls has its potential shortcomings. Nearly half of Alabama adults, 46 percent, lived in a household without a landline, according to 2015 data; the percentage is almost certainly larger today. One of the four polls didn’t interview respondents without a landline at all, while two of the others blended landline interviews with cell-phone voters reached online or via smartphone apps. The Change Research poll was conducted entirely online but required respondents to self-identify as Alabama voters likely to cast ballots in a low-turnout race.
(Breitbart News, which is backing Moore and has cast doubt on the molestation allegations against him, reported that an in-state consulting firm that has worked for Moore in the past found the Republican ahead by 10 points in a Saturday-evening survey, though that poll wasn’t released publicly.)
Previously, polls of likely voters in the special election had showed Moore with a more consistent lead. But these new, instant polls are often misleading barometers of how the sudden, negative news coverage can impact a campaign.
Donald Trump cratered in the polls in the immediate wake of the “Access Hollywood” video — in which Trump jokes about sexually assaulting women — roughly a month before last year’s presidential election. But Trump recovered in subsequent weeks, winning the Electoral College and finishing about 2 percentage points behind Hillary Clinton in the popular vote.
The Moore story has some parallels in recent Senate races. Five years ago, after then-Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) made his infamous “legitimate rape” comment in an interview with a St. Louis TV station, four immediate polls showed results ranging between a 1-point Akin lead and a 10-point advantage for Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). Before that, Akin had led every other public poll of the race conducted that year.
McCaskill would build on her lead over the final weeks of the campaign, eventually trouncing Akin by 16 points. In that case, Republicans first tried to push Akin out of the race, then abandoned him en masse — including Mitt Romney, the party’s presidential nominee. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), then-chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in the weeks following Akin’s comment that the committee wouldn’t spend money to help Akin defeat McCaskill.
It was later revealed in campaign finance reports filed after the election that the National Republican Senatorial Committee made a late cash transfer to the Missouri Republican Party. “We needed to do what we needed to do to help win Senate seats,” Cornyn told POLITICO in December 2012.
Also in 2012, Republican Richard Mourdock similarly found himself in hot water over comments about rape and pregnancy in an Indiana Senate race. Indiana prohibits automated-phone polling, so there was little public data available to track how large a factor Mourdock’s statement was in his eventual loss to then-Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.). Mourdock’s publicly released internal polls showed him and Donnelly neck-and-neck, while a Donnelly internal showed the Democrat leading by a larger margin. Donnelly won by 6 points on Election Day.
Most rigorous campaign polling is done over three days to ensure pollsters aren’t only capturing the most-easily-reached voters, so both parties will likely be poring over new polling data over the next few days.
Don’t expect to see this polling in the public domain: Democrats are wary of nationalizing the race in a state Trump carried by nearly 30 points last fall, and Republicans are unlikely to make a public display of support for a candidate accused of sexually abusing a minor — or to release data that show the GOP nominee struggling. But the decisions made by both parties over the coming week will likely be informed by what that data suggest about how Alabama voters are reacting to the scandal.