Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump paid homage to the forgotten man and woman. That was his focus — responding and speaking to the working-class and rural voters whose interests Washington had ignored for decades.
In other words, while his opponent Hillary Clinton and her allies focused on transgender bathroom rights and the other small-ball politically correct minutiae, Trump argued for policies to improve lives of people neglected because of that kind of misplaced focus.
It worked. Trump won Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio as the champion of the forgotten man.
There is a similar phenomenon underway in Alabama.
Alabama’s forgotten man is even more “forgotten” than the national version. These individuals have been ignored politically over the past 15 to 20 years, ostensibly since the state transitioned to one-party rule.
Every national election year, the steel mill worker in Pennsylvania or the dairy farmer in Wisconsin are the voters a Republican or Democrat say they will “fight for” in Washington. For about six months to a year every four years, politicians shift their focus to that all-important corn farmer in Iowa as presidential candidates seek an edge in the Iowa caucuses.
Similar to the national political stage — where every four years presidential candidates push their star power and resources to population centers as a way to gin up enthusiasm and votes — in last week’s Republican primary runoff for the United States Senate, incumbent Luther Strange’s campaign put its remaining firepower into winning in the Birmingham and Huntsville areas. Trump paid a visit to the Rocket City on Strange’s behalf the Friday before the election.
In the days after that, Strange went all-in in Birmingham and its suburbs in Jefferson and Shelby counties. That constituted a late ground game of door-knocking and a visit from Vice President Mike Pence in the hopes of generating some enthusiasm.
The Strange campaign hoped to run up the score, with the Birmingham vote believed to be enough to overcome Strange’s opponent, Roy Moore, who was strong everywhere else in the state.
In the end, Strange did what he set out to do, which was win Jefferson, Shelby and Madison counties. His victories were not nearly enough. Aside from winning in Alabama’s other population centers, including Mobile and Baldwin counties, Moore owned the rural areas of Alabama.
What was it that drew voters to Roy Moore in counties that are now just forgotten names on the roadmap — those towns you might stop in briefly on a drive up from Mobile to an Alabama game or to Montgomery for a school field trip? Why did Washington, Choctaw, Escambia and Butler county Republicans go for Moore? With no other race on the ballot, what was it about Moore that motivated voters in places far from Mobile, such as Marshall, Morgan and Lawrence counties, to get up and out for Moore?
Many will tell you it was Moore’s appeal to the evangelical voters. It was the snake-charmers and the teetotalers that saw Moore as a righteous figure because of his much-publicized stances on the Ten Commandments and same-sex marriage.
There is truth to some of that. In dry or partially dry counties with wet cities, Moore outmatched Strange by a 60-to-40 percent margin.
Yes, unquestionably Moore emphasized religion in his campaign appearances. But there was a much deeper reason, beyond all the talk of praising our Lord and Savior, that Moore won these voters.
Whether it was intentional or unintentional, Moore was able to connect to these people in the same way Trump was able to connect to his voters in last year’s national election.
There was more to it than Moore being the most Trumplike in his behavior. When people looked at Luther Strange, they saw a guy who was not like them — a man who did not see or understand their issues. They saw a man who viewed a small town such as Georgiana as a place for a photo op in some hokey diner on the side of Interstate 65.
Rural voters saw Moore differently. He drove his own pickup truck. He wasn’t afraid to wear a cowboy hat and boots. He went to go vote on horseback, for goodness’ sake.
To be fair, not many rural Alabamians are traveling via horse to their polling precinct, but it was a stark contrast to Luther Strange.
If you spent any time in Alabama, outside of the political bubble in the lead-up to the election, most people were not even aware there was an election underway. Sure, the aggressive advertising made it a little less of a secret, but for most the ads were just background noise.
From the Flora-Bama all the way up to the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, politics was the farthest thing from most people’s minds, and last Tuesday’s 14 percent turnout rate proved it.
When you dig a little deeper and find these off-the-highway places, you see that a lot of these voters just want their voices heard.
They want to tell you how the changes in bank laws have made it much more difficult to run the family farm. They are star-struck by the presence of a local Mobile TV affiliate reporter and just want a selfie with him. They don’t like that they have to drive 30 minutes to get gasoline that wasn’t blended with ethanol for their outboard boat motor or some of their farm equipment.
It wasn’t that Roy Moore did these things. However, when you put the candidates side by side, which of those two is going to be more likely to identify with those problems? The guy from Mountain Brook who was a D.C. lobbyist for a decade, or the Ten Commandments judge?
A rural ground game strategy may not work for every election in Alabama, but a 67-county strategy versus a seven- or eight-county strategy is still a winning approach here.
Many of us in politics are guilty of focusing on the big populations of the state. However, as we’ve seen, as Brewton and places like it go, so goes the rest of the state of Alabama.