MOBILE, Alabama—As she sped around the oak-draped streets here on Sunday morning, in a Suburban piled with weeks of campaign detritus, Christian Smith explained that we were in one of the four counties that could decide the state’s next U.S. senator. “Mobile’s not as red as you might think,” she said. “It’s 50-50. It’s winnable.”
Smith, the 31-year-old president of the Bay Area Young Democrats, wore sweatpants and a vibrant blue Doug Jones T-shirt as she headed out to knock on doors in Democratic neighborhoods. I was there to tag along and see how a team of Alabama Democrats—a demographic alien to me during my upbringing in neighboring Baldwin County—were handling the most competitive and nationally scrutinized state election in recent decades.
The Republican candidate, Roy Moore, was supposed to have a sleepy march to the Senate, after he won a difficult primary over the establishment-backed Luther Strange in the race to fill Jeff Sessions’ seat in the Senate. But accusations that Moore pursued, and in some cases assaulted, teenage girls have turned the race into a toss-up. As Moore has receded from the campaign trail in the closing days, Democrats feel tantalizingly close to seizing a Senate seat in the deep-red state.
“It’s exciting but nerve-wracking,” Smith told me. For Alabama Democrats, pushing Doug Jones to victory could help breathe new life into the party, which hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate in two decades. Smith, for her part, bristles at the state’s reputation as a Republican stronghold. She has been a politically active Alabamian since she was a teenager, helping build the county Democratic Party in her hometown of Huntsville. In 2012, she ran for Mobile County treasurer and lost by just 4 points. “Democrats are here; they exist,” she said.
In a city that remains deeply divided by race, many of those Democrats are black voters, whose turnout is expected to be crucial to the outcome. Smith explained between phone calls that the last big push of the campaign, a final get-out-the-vote effort directed at the base, would target almost exclusively black neighborhoods. “It’s probably going to come down to 10,000 votes statewide,” she said.
Mobile, a port city tucked along the Gulf Coast, feels noticeably different from Huntsville, Birmingham, and Montgomery, in the northern or central parts of the state. The city’s long history includes French and Spanish ownership and a period as a slave-trading hub, and it still feels far removed—an older, more antebellum South, less evangelical and more Catholic. “The civil rights movement never even made it to Mobile,” Smith said at one point.
The city is roughly 50 percent black, and in a city where politics fall along racial lines, black voters are likely to comprise the vast majority of support for Democratic candidates. White Mobilians, on the other hand, turn out to vote in high numbers but are overwhelmingly Republican. When Smith first moved to Mobile and got involved in local politics, some of the older people involved—especially older black men—assumed she was a Republican plant, she said.
The hope among Democrats is that candidates like Moore—and Donald Trump before him—could help shift that dynamic. Smith and other Democrats in the state told me they’ve seen people, especially white women, come out publicly as liberal over the course of this Senate election, or because of Trump’s election. According to Smith, Huntsville and Birmingham see more enthusiastic white voters ready to volunteer. Getting people, white or black, to canvass in Mobile, she said, “is like pulling teeth.”
The national attention on the race hasn’t necessarily helped. “Everyone’s trying to tell us how to do it down here,” she told me as we walked along the side of an Azalea-lined street and peeled off at yards cluttered with tricycles, knickknacks, Christmas decorations, Alabama Crimson Tide and Auburn Tigers paraphernalia, and overgrown potted plants. When I asked who “everyone” was, she gestured in a way that indicated everyone to the north. Democratic politicians, liberal comedians, the kinds of people who would support Jones and despise Roy Moore. “They make fun of us,” she said. “It doesn’t help our cause.”
“The South will turn blue at some point; it’s inevitable,” she argued. “It might be 10 or 20 years. The people voting now are old and white, but with 45 and younger, it’s a different conversation and feel.” (When I asked another volunteer later if the South would ever turn blue, she laughed and simply said, “no.”)
At 11:45 in the morning, it was still church time, and Smith mostly ended up slotting the Doug Jones flyers in fences or in the gaps between screen doors. After knocking on 13 doors and failing to reach any of the voters she was looking for, we drove back to the headquarters, a stately law office lent out to the volunteers.
I hopped in with another set of volunteers: Zoe Zegers—a chemical engineer who had recently moved to the Mobile area from New York City—and Mattie, an attorney for the state and a former Republican who didn’t want to give her real name out of fear of professional repercussions.
In the car, Zegers told me how she had decided to move to Alabama in part because she wanted to escape the bubble of New York. She had been politically active in New York, she said, but not as much as here in Mobile. “It’s frustrating; in New York you can’t do much,” she said. “I’m doing way more here than I could in New York.” I told her I had often thought Democrats would feel more, not less, powerless in an overwhelmingly Republican state. She replied that political identities were not always as static as they felt. She seemed hopeful.
Their canvassing list was made up of likely voters—those who had voted before, but not consistently. At first, these houses were empty too, but after a little while—maybe as more people returned from church—a few heads started poking out of doors. Most were older people, and most were wary, but not cold. Even the folks who were pleasant kept the conversations short. Almost word for word, they went like this:
Zegers: Hi, is so-or-so there?
Resident: That’s me.
Zegers: Hi, we’re with the Doug Jones campaign of Mobile. We just wanted to know if we can count on your vote on Tuesday.
Resident: Yeah, I’m voting.
Zegers: Great. Do you need a ride to the polls?
Resident: No, thank you.
Zegers: Would you mind taking this pamphlet as a reminder?
Zegers: Thanks, have a good day.
There were no exclamations of excitement, no declarations of die-hard support. Of course, it could just be that no one likes to be disturbed on a Sunday afternoon by strangers, but it wasn’t the groundswell of enthusiasm some of the hyperbole at the headquarters had suggested.
A few local black politicians had stopped by to encourage the largely white volunteer staff. Ken Robinson, a high school history teacher and volunteer for Jones in Mobile, who is also the son of a preacher at a black church, said he can feel the enthusiasm among many young people, because they are passionate and “hate the caricature of Alabama.” But he said some older black voters have held back on supporting Jones because of more traditional views about LGBT rights and abortion. “There’s still a sizable number who don’t know the crazy stuff [Moore] said,” Robinson said. “They know he’s for traditional marriage and the church. I think the Republicans have been very savvy to use that.”
Robinson said he believed Doug Jones stood a good chance of winning the election. “If you can get blacks out and siphon off some support [for Moore] with that write-in candidate, I think he’s got a chance,” he said.
Robinson said, more than anything, that he wants progress. “It’s time for the future to start,” he said, when he turned to his own beliefs. “Let’s not let these old, white, backwards, narrow-minded men keep dictating what Alabama is to the nation. We’re not all about Roy Moores or [Robert] Bentleys or even Jeff Sessions, someone who’s stuck in the ’80s. Alabama is full of progressive people; it’s time for us to take the forefront.”
The allegations against Moore come amid a broader reckoning in Alabama politics. Last year, Mike Hubbard, the speaker of the Alabama House, was sentenced to four years in prison on ethics charges. Robert Bentley, a church deacon–turned-governor, was forced to resign in April this year after a scandal in which he had an affair with his much-younger aide and misused government funds to facilitate it. That same month, Roy Moore was forced out as the chief justice of the state Supreme Court after refusing to grant marriage licenses. It had felt at the time like a cleansing fire for Alabama politics.
The year, though, and the 2016 presidential election, have left the state with some wounds. During an earlier round of canvassing, Mattie and Zegers had gone around to these black neighborhoods to ask what issues the voters cared about. While they hadn’t gotten many responses, they said, two separate people responded with national unity.
I asked them whether they thought it was politically more astute to emphasize Moore’s poor qualities or Jones’ good ones. “Probably in the middle, because lots of people are turned off by politics,” Mattie said.
“The problem with the campaign is people don’t know Jones; they just know Moore is terrible,” Zegers said. “And he is.” They walked on in silence to the next house. “They always say the same thing, about prosecuting the Klan,” Mattie said when I asked them again.
“It’s important,” Zegers said.
“It is important,” Mattie admitted. “It guess it’s a defining thing.”
Asked whether she thought it was helpful to focus on the allegations against Moore, Smith would only say canvassers had been told not to mention Moore. Mattie, a lifelong Alabamian, said she thought that was the way to go. “A lot of people get bogged down by how negative things are,” she said. “If it’s just not Roy Moore, that’s not going to get people to go vote. … ‘You shouldn’t vote for Roy Moore.’ ‘OK, I’m not going to vote.’ ”
The volunteers were just as conflicted about Trump’s role in the race. “People who didn’t want him to win, but wanted a Republican to win—it’s a do-over vote,” Mattie said. Smith agreed—“people got some balls after Trump; it was complacency,” she said—before reverting to the campaign’s official position: “This is not a referendum on Trump.”*
But if Moore and Trump are supposed to go unmentioned, the two have injected the race with a palpable sense of excitement.
Smith looked momentarily overwhelmed. “It’s exciting,” she said. “But it’s terrifying.”
*Correction, Dec. 12, 2017: This article originally misquoted Christian Smith as saying, “This is not a referral on Trump.” She said, “This is not a referendum on Trump.” (Return.)