Voters in Alabama and Mississippi chose former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum over Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich in the Republican primary. And former judge Roy Moore muscled his way to the GOP nomination for a term as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court.
Both men came to national prominence as social conservatives — Santorum for his stances on evolution and homosexuality, and Roy Moore for the two-ton Ten Commandments monument he plopped in front of the state Supreme Court building in 2001.
But do the election results mean Alabama is ready for another round of 1990s-style culture wars? Political scientists aren’t so sure.
David Lanoue, dean of the political science department at Georgia’s Columbus State University, thinks Santorum and Moore both owe their victory to a hard core of evangelical voters.
“This is a very self-selected electorate,” said Lanoue, a longtime observer of Alabama politics.
Lanoue said primaries tend to have lower turnout than general elections, which favors the activist base — in this case, a base that strongly identifies with socially conservative stances. Primaries are less about swaying the undecided, he said, and more about exciting the party faithful.
Lanoue noted that Romney fared better in pre-election polls than he did on Election Day.
“The Romney voters didn’t turn out, and the Santorum voters did,” he said.
Lanoue said Moore likely got a bump from Santorum’s faithful.
But not every expert is convinced that the two victories are connected, or that they’re evidence of a social conservative surge. Gerard Gryski, head of the political science department at Auburn University, noted that pre-election polls showed that 80 percent of likely GOP voters in Alabama identified as evangelicals.
“If 80 percent of voters are evangelicals, and evangelicals like Santorum, why did Santorum get only about a third of the vote?” Gryski said. “And why is Moore struggling to avoid a runoff?”
Moore just barely managed a decisive win over sitting Chief Justice Chuck Malone and former attorney general Charlie Graddick. In a vote count that ran late into the night, Moore got slightly more than 50 percent of the total vote. He needed 50 percent plus one vote to avoid a runoff in June.
Lori Owens, head of the political science department at Jacksonville State University, said Moore may have won simply on name recognition.
“If they didn’t know the other two, they might check Roy Moore simply because he’s someone they remember,” she said.
Malone, appointed to the bench by Gov. Robert Bentley, is a relative unknown in politics. Graddick, a former Democrat, is best known for his contentious 1986 race against Bill Baxley for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Owens said that many Republican primary voters wouldn’t recall Graddick’s name, and among those who did, the name recognition might not boost Graddick’s chances.
The easiest way to prove the existence of a social-conservative surge, political experts said, would be to look at Santorum strongholds and see if they also voted for Moore. But there’s enough leeway in the numbers to make the link questionable.
More anecdotes than numbers
Among the counties for which complete results were available Wednesday, rural areas were split almost evenly between Gingrich and Santorum. Santorum led in a few relatively urban counties such as Madison and Shelby, according to records in the Alabama Secretary of State’s office. Romney won more metropolitan counties such as Jefferson, Montgomery, Mobile and Baldwin.
Moore, on the other hand, won almost every county for which results were available Wednesday. Graddick, a Mobile native, won three counties in the Mobile metro area. Malone carried Tuscaloosa, where he once sat as a judge, and Montgomery. Complete results from the secretary of state’s office were not yet available for 17 counties.
For Owens and others, it’s not enough data to make a conclusion that Santorum rode Moore’s coattails, or vice versa.
“We don’t have the data,” she said. “We just have anecdotes.”
Among the anecdotal evidence: a number of Democrats said before the election that they would vote for Gingrich or Santorum, to throw a monkey wrench into the GOP nomination process. Alabama allows any registered voter to cast a ballot in either party’s primary, and there was little to be decided on the Democratic ballot.
The Democrats-for-Santorum vote creates another problem for political scientists looking for a theme in the election — though most think the sabotage vote didn’t amount to much.
Gryski said the Democratic vote probably wouldn’t be enough to explain Santorum’s margin of victory. Owens said the Democratic vote would likely have been split between Santorum and Gingrich.
A conservative state
No one, however, is questioning the notion that Alabama is a socially conservative state. A survey conducted by Public Policy Polling shortly before the election showed that 45 percent of likely Republican voters identified themselves as “very conservative.” Forty-five percent said they believe Barack Obama is a Muslim, 53 percent said they have a favorable opinion of talk show host Rush Limbaugh and 60 percent say they do not believe in evolution.
Sam Fisher, a pollster who teaches political science at the University of South Alabama, said the numbers are no surprise. Fisher said he suspects Alabama voters are no more socially conservative than in past years, though he said Santorum may have inspired an already existing core of social conservatives to come out and cast their votes.
“Moore must have had a coattail effect from people who voted for Santorum,” Fisher said.
Gryski disagrees. Citing the old adage about all politics being local, he said it was more likely that Moore energized voters for the former Pennsylvania senator.
“If anybody helped anybody, it was Moore helping Santorum,” he said.