All the chatter in Alabama’s gubernatorial primaries has revolved around U.S. Rep. Artur Davis’ surprising loss in the Democratic primary and the deadlock in the Republican primary. Little assessment has focused on former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore coming in a distant fourth place in the Republican contest.
Following his political popularity during his 2003 battle over the Ten Commandments monument in the state judicial building, few predicted he would badly lose two straight Republican gubernatorial primaries. Yet his fall from political grace offers important insights into understanding the weaknesses of political movements.
Although Moore lost his fight to keep the 2½-ton monument in the judicial building – and ultimately lost his seat on the bench – he emerged from that controversy as a highly popular figure across Alabama and the nation. He continued to live off that controversy by traveling the nation selling his book, giving speeches and showing off his monument.
Yet once he transitioned from leader of a movement supporting the Ten Commandments to trying to lead people to vote for him, he lost support. Some of his supporters may have decided his critics were correct and his fight for the monument was merely an effort to boost his own political ambitions. Or, perhaps, many voters who rallied with him originally did not really care for Moore but simply showed up to support the Ten Commandments. Additionally, many of his supporters during the 2003 effort came from outside Alabama, and thus, they could not help him on Election Day.
Since successful leaders of political movements and successful political candidates need different skills, few people can play both roles.
It is one thing to rally people against something, but it is another to mobilize them for a specific person. What had been his strength eventually became his weakness. Polarizing movement figures like Moore may be able to rally large numbers of people around a cause, but could find themselves unable to convert such numbers as the situation shifts to be about the person and not the cause.
Moore failed to recognize that the thousands rallying in 2003 were there for his cause and not for him. Moore’s losses – even among voters who used to be his base of support – should serve as a warning to other candidates who hope that a successful political movement can translate into electoral success at the ballot box.
The tea-party movement captured the attention of journalists and politicians last summer, but that will not necessarily mean such efforts can be harnessed by politicians this fall. Activists who united against health care reform have splintered into various tea-party groups and support competing tea-party candidates.
Moore was just one of the Republican hopefuls who worked to gain the support of this movement. In the end, his fate should serve as a warning to his tea-party supporters and leaders of other political movements.
Brian Kaylor is contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com and assistant professor of communication studies at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. He is the author of a study on Moore’s rhetoric in the K.B. Journal and a forthcoming book on religious rhetoric in presidential campaigns. This column first appeared in the Birmingham News and is used here by permission.