Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Spitting image

It took a Gallup poll to confirm the obvious: Alabamians like to split their tickets at the ballot box.

The survey, conducted last year at some point unspecified in The Birmingham News' story on it, found that 49 percent of state voters identified as Democrats, while 46 percent registered in the Republican column. (A poll in April found Democrats with a similar edge, 46 percent to 43 percent.) The most recent results led Gallup to paint Alabama deep purple and deem it the fourth most competitive state in a similarly divided nation.

I have two problems with the data. First, I suspect independents constitute far more than 5 percent of the electorate. Second, the raw numbers blur an important distinction, noted by University of Alabama political scientist William Stewart, that has held true in state politics for almost 30 years: Many Alabama voters lean toward Democrats in local races, but they vote heavily Republican in elections for statewide and national officials.

Far better minds than I have tried to explain this discrepancy, with some attributing it to a policy divide between state and national Democrats on social issues and national defense. (For example, Alabama's Democratic legislators voted overwhelmingly -- twice -- for gay marriage bans, in stark contrast to their national leaders.) The differences certainly play a role, but in a state where more than half of the people now agree with national Democrats that the Iraq war was a mistake, they can't be the only factor.

Indeed, the discrepancy seems to hinge more on whether people are voting for someone or for the image of someone. City and county Democrats do better here than their national counterparts because it's easier for voters to get to know candidates for those offices personally and vote for the individual they like better. The personal touch gives nominees a chance to win regardless of their party, so both the blue and red teams are competitive locally.

By contrast, most voters in state and national elections never have a chance to meet any of the contenders for those offices and often necessarily must base their votes on little more than the modicum of information they can cobble together amid the incessant mudslinging on their airwaves. Because high-level Republican candidates often attract more deep-pocketed backers than their Democratic rivals, GOP nominees have the edge at molding the public images -- some entirely warranted, some entirely not, most somewhere in between -- of both themselves and their opponents. With so many people voting (and forming lasting political allegiances) based on those images, Republicans dominate the state's major jobs in Montgomery and Washington.

How this came to be the state of affairs in Alabama and whether it will change any time soon are subjects for another day. But it is the state of affairs in Alabama, and no opinion poll will disturb it.

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