McConnell flip-flops: On second thought, it's up to Alabama voters to decide whether Roy Moore's fit for office

Why, it was just three short weeks ago, in the first flush of reaction to WaPo’s initial scandal story about Moore, that McConnell dropped this bomb on him:

Three weeks later, a duly chastened Mitch the Knife puts his dagger away:

That weird feeling you have right now is deja vu from half the GOP leadership turning on Trump last October after the “Access Hollywood” tape dropped, then slowly crawling back to him when it became clear from the polling that he hadn’t been fatally damaged by it. McConnell’s reversal is newsy, though, not just because he’s Moore’s future majority leader but because he went all-in trying to beat him in the primary runoff. He hates Moore at least as much as Moore hates him, yet here he is grudgingly backing away from the “Moore must go” calls. What happened?

Three things. Trump has since quasi-endorsed Moore by attacking his Democratic opponent and McConnell doesn’t want another feud with the president. The passage of time has also made demands for Moore to quit increasingly futile. There was a chance after the WaPo story broke that Trump would try to push him out, that the Alabama GOP would oust him as nominee, or that Moore himself might drop out, giving the party time to find a replacement who’d stand a chance of winning in a state that red. But the election’s nine days away. If Moore quit tomorrow, the new nominee would be unknown to most of the public unless McConnell somehow talked Jeff Sessions into resigning as AG to stand for election in Moore’s place. From the standpoint of partisan self-interest, McConnell’s better off having Moore win at this point and then figuring out what to do with him once he’s seated.

But there’s another reason he’s backing off. CBS is out with a new poll today in which it asked Alabama voters what effect McConnell’s call for Moore to quit the race has had on their support for the candidate. That’s some backfire:

Not that Moore was ever going to quit, but if McConnell hadn’t been so eager to set up an “establishment versus Moore” narrative after the scandal broke, maybe support for him from Alabama Republicans would have been weaker and the state party would have moved against him. Unlikely, I know, but McConnell inadvertently made it easier to stand with the nominee. So now he’s clamming up and telling Alabamians to do whatever they want.

The new CBS poll has Moore up six, by the way, 49/43, which is right in line with every other post-Thanksgiving poll of the state *except* that curious WaPo poll from yesterday, which had Jones leading, 50/47. How to explain the discrepancy? Simple: CBS thinks the electorate will be far more Republican than WaPo does. WaPo’s sample was 38 percent Republican, 31 percent Democrat, and 27 percent independent; CBS’s sample is 46 percent Republican, 32 percent Democrat, and 21 percent independent. The polls also diverge sharply on whether Moore’s accusers should be believed. WaPo found Republicans split 13/46 on that question while CBS finds them split 17/71.

Needless to say, if turnout on election day is as red as CBS expects, Moore should have no problem holding the seat. But note: In 2014, a year of a Republican wave, the GOP’s advantage at the polls in Alabama was R+9. CBS is expecting R+14 even though it’s a special election, when turnout is always irregular, and the party’s nominee has been damaged by scandal. Seems hard to believe Alabama Republicans will not only be more excited to vote now than they were three years ago but that they’ll swamp Democrats in turnout in an election where the left is itching to send a message to Trump and Moore about a blue wave to come next year.

This is a not-great bit of data for Moore from the CBS poll too. Their pollster asked Moore voters why they’re backing him:

A vote for Moore because you’re anti-Jones counts as much as it would if you were pro-Moore, but just by way of comparison, Jones’s voters said they were voting for him because they like him versus voting for him because they dislike Moore by a margin of 67/33. The fact that Republican voters are understandably more lukewarm about their nominee than Dems makes me wonder again how robust the GOP’s turnout advantage will be. In fact, although only nine percent of Republicans overall say they’re voting for Jones, fully 21 percent agree with McConnell’s advice from mid-November that Moore should step aside. Even at this late date, knowing that Moore dropping out would mean chaos for the election and a likely Democratic victory, more than one in five Alabama Republicans would pull the trapdoor on Moore. How many of that 21 percent are going to go in the booth on election day, hold their noses, and vote for the Democrat? Impossible to predict but it’s a major X-factor.

As for McConnell, I realize he mutters something at the end of the clip above about having the Senate Ethics Committee consider Moore’s past once he’s seated as a senator but he’s blowing smoke. There’s no way the Senate is going to overrule the judgment of Alabamians on a scandal voters are fully aware of, particularly when the scandalous behavior allegedly occurred many years before Moore took office and the president is on the sidelines cheerleading for him. Unless the committee comes up with something new from Moore’s past and produces unusually solid evidence that it happened, they’re going to lay off. As I said a few days ago, there won’t even be a floor vote on expulsion.