In 2013, the University of Alabama’s top-ranked college football team lost to their intra-state rival, Auburn University, on what is widely considered one of the most improbable single plays in college football history. With the game tied nearing the end of regulation, Alabama lined up to kick a field goal. The long field goal attempt had little chance of success but was a risk worth taking because of the incredible unlikelihood that the play could lead to an Auburn score. That, however, is exactly what happened. The kick was short, and an Auburn player took the ball from the back of his own endzone 109-yards for a touchdown. The game was over. Auburn won.
According to an October 12th poll, Democrat Doug Jones would need exactly this sort of Auburn miracle to beat Republican Roy Moore in the December 12th special election for Jeff Sessions’ vacated Senate seat.
Well, it seems like Jones has the ball and is running towards Moore’s endzone.
A recent Fox News poll, which was conducted from October 14th-16th, has the race as a dead heat. And while the New York Times’ Jonathan Martin reports that Democrats believe the poll might overestimate Jones’ support, it is clear that the Democrats have a real chance to capture one of the most reliably red Senate seats in the country.
If Jones’ campaign wasn’t yet feeling the pressure of the moment, this new poll will surely lead them to re-assess what they need to do to get their candidate over the finish line. And the topline result is only where the good news begins for the Democrat. The deeper one looks into the numbers, the better his chances seem, skepticism be damned.
Specifically, 10% of those polled have never heard of Jones, compared to only 3% who have never heard of Moore. These numbers indicate that Moore’s support is as high as it is likely to get, while Jones has significant potential to increase his vote share. The low-ID numbers are a problem for Jones with the special election less than two months away, but the enormous gulf in name recognition between the two candidates reveals a path to victory for the Democrat.
A Jones’ victory will require two election day outcomes: 1. High turnout among low-propensity voters — especially his base in cities like Birmingham and amongst young voters, who favor Jones by a large margin (46%-32%); and 2. Republicans defecting because they cannot bring themselves to support the controversial Moore.
To capitalize on this opportunity, the Democrats will need to be shrewd. Fortunately, there is one strategy in the Democratic playbook that is uniquely suited to Jones’ needs — friend-to-friend organizing and contacts.
This strategy would require Jones’ campaign to invest heavily in building its volunteer network and effectively leveraging those volunteers. The best way to turn Jones’ low recognition numbers into votes is to build networks of people who are willing and able to vouch for his candidacy. It’s one thing to rally with Joe Biden to build up his national profile, but if this race becomes a proxy race for a generic Republican running against a generic Democrat, it’s hopeless. The potential for friends and relations to personally introduce Jones to voters who have never heard of him is a monumental advantage.
In this race specifically, though, the real utility of friend-to-friend contacts is that it allows the campaign to send different messages to different voters, amplifying targeted messages more quickly and productively than any alternative would. It also captures essential data about potentially undecided voters who Jones will need to win.
This is the type of campaign Jones needs to run to win in December. He needs to identify the tenth of the voting population who have never heard of him and turn those voters into his voters. This won’t happen with big rallies or email blasts. Throwing considerable money into costly television spots or paid canvassers won’t help, either. Jones’ best and only hope is to reach voters with personal messages that speak to their concerns, sent by people who they trust, over channels that they regularly use to communicate — social media and texting.
The formula is simple. The praxis will surely be more difficult. Yet, Alabamians have experience with this kind of unlikely victory.
In addition to questions about the Senate race, the October 12th poll asked Alabamians about their college football allegiances and found that voters support the University of Alabama’s team over Auburn’s by about the same margin that President Trump carried the state last November. The deck is stacked against Doug Jones, but stranger things — or at least equally strange things — have happened before in Alabama.