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            What are the chances Doug Jones could do it again? Past elections say not so great

            When the votes are counted and either Tommy Tuberville or Doug Jones are declared the winner in Alabama’s U.S. Senate race on Tuesday night, it will be the end of one of the most unique statewide elections in decades.

            For one thing, the state has a Democratic incumbent senator - the first time that’s happened since 1992. But the words “Democrat” and “Republican” meant something different back then. The Democrat on the ballot in ’92 was none other than Richard Shelby, who switched parties in 1994 and hasn’t left office since. Also, 1992 marked the last time Alabama had a sitting Democratic senator face reelection during a presidential election.

            Related: How Alabama went from a blue state to a red one

            The political landscape has shifted since the 1990s, making it difficult to find direct comparisons for the current race. But one thing does seem fairly clear - Doug Jones is facing an uphill battle.

            Jones won a historically close special election in 2017 as his opponent, former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, faced allegations over past interactions with young women. About 1.3 million people voted in that election, and Jones won by just 22,000 votes. That’s less than the number of write-in ballots cast during that election - 23,000.

            Jones earned around 674,000 total votes in 2017, the lowest total by a winning Alabama candidate for U.S. Senate since 1986 - when Shelby eked out his first term against Jeremiah Denton by just 7,000 votes.

            Jones was aided by an extraordinarily low turnout on the other side. The 652,000 votes earned by Moore was the lowest tally for a Republican in an Alabama U.S. Senate race since at least 1996. Former U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions got more votes in 2014 despite running unopposed.

            [Can’t see the map? Click here.]

            That low turnout is one of the many factors that makes comparing 2017 to 2020 difficult. Moore was such a controversial figure that many moderate Republicans stayed home or wrote in different candidates. And a special election held in a vacuum and an election with Donald Trump on the ballot couldn’t be more different.

            But there are some points of comparison between Jones' 2017 victory and Tuberville’s primary runoff win against Sessions earlier this year - especially when looking at margins within individual counties.

            Jones ran up the score in many of Alabama’s urban centers. He won Jefferson County, the most populous county in Alabama and home to Birmingham, by more than 83,000 votes. He won Montgomery County by nearly 31,000. Those counties alone made up for his losses in much of rural Alabama. But those two counties also both tend to vote Democratic.

            Jones also won in Mobile and Madison counties, which tend to vote more conservatively. He won Madison County by nearly 20,000 votes, and Mobile by nearly 17,000.

            Those numbers get more interesting when you look at how Tuberville performed in those counties in this year’s GOP runoff. About 551,000 people voted in the runoff this year - roughly 100,000 fewer than voted for Moore in 2017. And Tuberville won handily, pulling in 61 percent of the vote.

            [Can’t see the map? Click here.]

            Tuberville only lost three counties in that race. One was Wilcox County, a sparsely populated, heavily Democratic county in Alabama’s Black Belt, where just 600 people voted in the runoff and where Sessions grew up. The other two were Mobile and Madison.

            Tuberville lost Mobile County by around 1,600 votes. His biggest loss came in Madison, where he lost by around 5,000 votes. If Tuberville is truly unpopular in those counties, and the reverse is true for Jones, the state’s sitting Senator could make some headway.

            In other words, if Jones is going to have a chance to keep his seat, he’ll have to win handily in Alabama’s big cities, and especially in the state’s four most populous counties - Jefferson, Mobile, Madison and Montgomery.

            That’s already a tough scenario for Jones, and those counties make up just 34 percent of the state’s population - and the rest of the counties Jones can count on are mostly very small. Jones will need to find some votes elsewhere, or else Alabama will have a new senator.

            Presidential election changes everything

            And there’s another thing - or person - working in Tuberville’s favor. His name is Donald J. Trump.

            Trump is still very popular in Alabama. Despite running unopposed as a sitting president, he got more votes in the presidential primary this year than all Democratic presidential candidates combined. Since 2002, Alabama Republican candidates for U.S. Senate average 1.3 million votes in presidential election years, and just 850,000 in years without a presidential election.

            That’s not including 2017, which was an anomaly in Alabama. Roy Moore was one of the most unpopular Republican candidates in Alabama election history by the time votes were cast, the numbers show.

            Jones won Jefferson County by more than 83,000 votes, despite winning the whole state by just 22,000. For comparison, Hillary Clinton won Jefferson County by just 22,000 votes in 2016, and Barack Obama won it by just 18,000 in 2012.

            But the Democratic vote totals in each of those years was fairly similar, with Jones pulling 149,000 votes, compared to around 159,000 for Obama and 156,000 for Clinton. It was the Republicans staying home in 2017, more than the Democrats getting out, that made the difference for Jones.

            In 2016, with Trump on the ballot, Richard Shelby earned 1.34 million votes, the most by any Alabama candidate for U.S. Senate since at least 1986.

            Do you have an idea for a data story about Alabama? Email Ramsey Archibald at rarchibald@al.com, and follow him on Twitter @RamseyArchibald. Read more Alabama data stories here.

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