By Lee Davis
When Natalie Davis accepted a position as a political science professor at Birmingham-Southern College in 1972, she never saw it as a long-term proposition.
“I had gotten my undergraduate degree from Stetson University in Florida,” Davis recalled. “I thought I’d teach at Southern for two or three years and go back to Florida. Instead, my husband and I fell in love with Birmingham and we’re still here.”
In the years that followed, Davis expanded the reach of her political knowledge far beyond a classroom. She became one of Alabama’s best known political commentators, sometimes offering a blueish perspective in a solidly red state. But mostly, Davis tries to play it down the middle, focusing on the nuts and bolts of the election campaign itself instead of pushing an ideological viewpoint.
“I think I’ve lasted (as a commentator) because I’ve tried to be fair to both sides,” she said.
“There was a time when the two parties had disagreements but they were able to work together. We’ve gotten away from that and now the system is broken,” said Davis, who is this month’s speaker for the Mountain Brook Chamber of Commerce luncheon, Aug. 25.
Davis’ real political passion may be the numbers game. As a graduate student at the University of North Carolina, she became interested in public opinion research, and she has conducted polling surveys for decades.
“When I started, nobody in Alabama was doing much polling,” Davis recalled. “One day, Bob Vance (the chairman of the Alabama Democratic Party at the time) asked me to do a poll, and it turned out to be gold. There’s an old saying that if you get two opinions, most people are going to listen to the guy who’s wearing the lab coat. In politics, if you have the numbers, you are the guy in the lab coat.”
Davis did polling work for groups as diverse as the Alabama Education Association and the Alabama Power Company, but the tipping point for her career came in the controversial gubernatorial election of 1986.
A hotly contested runoff in the Democratic primary pitted Lt. Gov. Bill Baxley against Attorney General Charlie Graddick. Baxley was heavily favored, but Graddick won by a narrow margin. Baxley supporters challenged the result, claiming that illegal Republican crossover votes had provided Graddick his margin of victory.
After a long and bitter legal battle, the state Democratic Party awarded the gubernatorial nomination to Baxley, using Davis’ polling data to justify its action.
The party’s ruling proved to be unpopular with the voters, as Republican Guy Hunt swamped Baxley in the general election to become Alabama’s first GOP governor in the 20th century.
“The (Democratic) Committee had a choice. It could have ordered another runoff or picked a candidate,” Davis said. “They picked Baxley. That was the beginning of the end of the Democrats’ control of Alabama. It probably won’t come back in my lifetime.”
A few disgruntled Graddick supporters blamed Davis for the committee’s ruling. She received hate mail and anonymous phone calls.
“It was a tough time,” she said. “But I wasn’t the one that made the ruling. I just gave them the data that was requested.”
Davis continued her role as a sought-after political commentator after the Baxley-Graddick dispute, interrupted only by a run for the U.S. Senate in 1996. “Howell Heflin wasn’t running for another term, so it was going to be an open seat,” Davis recalled. “Open seats don’t come along very often. I knew I could raise money, so I decided to do it. It was a great experience.”
Davis lost the Democratic nomination to Roger Bedford, who went on to lose to Republican Jeff Sessions in the general election.
“I thought about running for lieutenant governor in 1998 but decided against it,” Davis said. “I’d made my last go at political office.”
Davis grew up in New York as the daughter of working class parents who revered President Franklin D. Roosevelt. She majored in political science in college and decided to seek a doctorate and become a college professor.
“I never worked in a campaign where I got inspired to be involved in politics,” she said. “It just turned out to be what I wanted to do.”
Davis is the Howell T. Heflin Professor of Political Science at BSC and owns two consulting firms. Davis and Associates does public opinion research while Voir Dire is a jury consulting firm, specializing in juror research and mock trials.
The ‘Gift’ of 2016
Davis sees the turbulent 2016 election cycle as evidence that the current American political system is dysfunctional.
“For political scientists, this election is a new gift every day,” she said. “No matter who wins, political scientists will be studying this election 50 and 100 years from now.”
Davis sees the fact that different parties can control the executive and legislative branches as problematic for American government.
“A parliamentary system such as in Great Britain would be very different,” she explained. “For example, if the Conservative Party wins, they control the Parliament and the prime minister, so they can do pretty much what they promise to do. In the United States, if you have a president from one party and Congress is controlled by the other party, nothing gets done.
While the anti-establishment presidential campaigns of Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Bernie Sanders may come from different perspectives, Davis thinks they have a common thread.
“Many Americans think that the people in power don’t care about them,” Davis explained. “Trump and Sanders have tapped into that feeling.”
Davis estimates that her students are reflective of the political split in the nation, divided about evenly between Democrats and Republicans. But there is one thing that unites them.
“Most of them think today’s politics is a joke,” she said. “They don’t like the extreme polarization. A lot of them don’t want to express a strong opinion because they don’t want to offend anyone. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad.”
On the other hand, Davis said her students have great empathy for what’s going on in the world. “They care about their community and their country,” she said. “They are upset about the way things are going.”
Natalie Davis should know. She’s been measuring people’s opinions for decades.
Davis’ Aug. 25 speech to the chamber will be at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. Doors open at 11 a.m. and lunch is served at 11:30 a.m., but space is limited. To register to attend, visit welcometomountainbrook.com.