Roy Moore by eight over Luther Strange is exactly what I would have guessed will happen next Tuesday night, and not just because the last two polls of Alabama have had Moore by that margin. An eight-point win “feels” right: Trump’s support and Strange’s incumbency make it hard to believe he’s going down by double digits but Moore has led every independent runoff poll comfortably. And he and his surrogates have been shrewd in painting his candidacy as a vote for Trump even though Trump’s backing the other guy in the race. Strange may stand with Trump, the pitch goes, but Moore stands with Trumpism. It’d be amazing if a single rally held by POTUS in the state is enough to nuke that message and undo an eight-point lead.
But Trump’s going to try, tonight at 8 p.m. ET in Huntsville.
There’ll probably be a final poll or two released Monday to gauge whether his appearance had any effect on the race. Until then, here’s where things stand:
54% said they would vote for Roy Moore, while 46% said Luther Strange.
The survey also indicated President Donald Trump’s endorsement of Luther Strange would only sway 2 out of 10 Republicans, planning to cast votes in the runoff.
When asked, “President Donald Trump has endorsed Luther Strange and announced visits to Alabama to campaign for him. Did the endorsement by the President make a difference in deciding for whom you would vote?”, 20% of those polled said the President’s endorsement did make a difference, while 80% the president’s endorsement did not make a difference.
I don’t know if “only” is the right word there. It all depends on how much of a difference Trump’s endorsement makes. If five points moves from Moore to Strange this weekend after tonight’s rally, hoo boy.
The conventional wisdom among populists is that Trump’s acting against his own interests by backing the McConnell-endorsed Strange instead of the populist Moore. I don’t see it. Ideologically it makes sense *if* you believe that (a) Trump is a committed nationalist and (b) Strange is a committed establishmentarian, but neither is really true. Trump is a Trumpist more than a nationalist, an important distinction, and Strange has made it as clear as he possibly could during this runoff that he’ll roll over for Trump whenever the president needs him to. He spent most of last night’s debate with Moore recounting his bromance with POTUS, so desperate is he to peel away some of Moore’s populist support. He’s not a Trumpist by temperament but if voting like one gets him elected and keeps getting him elected then he’s a Trumpist for all intents and purposes.
And from Trump’s perspective, who could ask for more? Moore may talk the populist talk but in the end Strange is probably as reliable a vote for Trump as Moore is. Maybe even more so: Moore has his socially conservative hobbyhorses, after all, which Trump doesn’t share, and Moore seems willing to obstruct Senate business for his own ends even when Trump might not approve. He’ll rock the boat, which sounds good to Trump’s fans but shouldn’t sound as good to a president who doesn’t always want it rocked. If you’re Trump, you’re better off having an establishmentarian whom you can control than a populist whom you can’t. In fact, having Moore around could be a special pain in the ass for Trump in that Moore might build his brand by trying to “out-Trump” him. Imagine, for instance, Trump caving on a DREAM deal that doesn’t include wall funding and Moore voting no because “that’s not why the American people elected this president.” Moore in the Senate could end up as a populist scold against the White House, holding Trump to account on his campaign promises, which I’m sure is exactly what Steve Bannon’s hoping for. All that’ll do from Trump’s standpoint is make his job harder by turning his base against him. Why not try to stop Moore now by getting Strange elected instead?
Here’s Sarah Palin at last night’s rally for Moore in Alabama warning the crowd, “The forgotten man and woman in this country, they stood up, and we beat the swamp. But, alas, 10 months later, guys, the swamp, it’s trying to hijack this presidency.” Moore made the same point at the debate earlier, noting, “The problem is President Trump’s being cut off in his office. He’s being redirected by people like McConnell who do not support his agenda.” The idea that Trump is somehow being manipulated by evil establishmentarians is key to Moore’s pitch since it keeps him on the right side of the president’s fans while giving them a reason not to vote for the president’s preferred candidate. It’s not Trump who’s sold out or gone native. God forbid! It’s the sinister Mitch McConnell taking advantage of a poor, newbie president. That implication, that maybe Trump isn’t quite equal to the task of doing battle with “the swamp,” entirely contradicts the message of his candidacy last year. He sold himself as the ultra alpha male who would bend the dummies and losers in Washington to his will; now here are Palin and Moore, eight months after the inauguration, suggesting that perhaps he’s no match for the human turtle, Mitch McConnell. If they’re right then they should be calling Trump a fraud, not kissing his ass about how he bears no blame. And Trump would be well within his rights to take offense at the insinuation that he’s some weak-willed dullard whose strings are being pulled by McConnell.