Guest Post: The Georgia runoffs

A guest post by Stephen Russell:

On January 5, Georgians will vote in a pair of run-off elections that will decide which party controls the US Senate for the next two years. 

Polls (for what they are worth) are mixed. Data for Progress has Warnock (D) ahead but Ossoff (D) not. Trafalgar has Ossoff ahead and Warnock not. RMG has both ahead. Remington and Fox have both behind. Polls in Georgia were among the least-wrong on November 3, but still underestimated Republican support. Biden led Trump by 1.2 points in the 538 average and he won by 0.25 points.

So here are some factors to consider in trying to guess the outcome. Some are encouraging for Republicans, some encouraging for Democrats.

History is against the Democrats: in the last 30 years there have been eight statewide run-off elections in Georgia, and Democrats have won just one. That was a 1998 election to a seat on the Public Service Commission – and the Democrat who won subsequently defected to the Republicans.

The history of run-offs shows a consistent pattern of much lower turnout. Democrats’ (often spectacular) failure in run-offs has stemmed from not being able to sustain turnout as well as Republicans. Turnout will almost certainly be the dominant factor again. 

In both 2020 races the aggregate Republican vote was higher – by 1.0% in the special Senate election and 1.8% in the regular Senate election. This gives Republicans a cushion to win even if their turnout declines more than Democrats’. 

The biggest third party vote in both elections was Libertarian. If those voters go back to the polls they are more likely to back Republicans.

Even though Georgia voted narrowly for Biden, it remains a Republican-leaning state. Biden’s margin in Georgia was 4.2% less than his popular vote margin nationwide.

A double runoff is unprecedented, not just in Georgia, but anywhere in the US.  This is likely to help sustain turnout.

This is a hugely consequential election: control of the Senate. Money and national attention are huge – likely boosting turnout.

The contrasting character of the Democrat candidates may be a slight help for them, as each candidate will reach different people – who will likely vote for both if they vote at all.

The contrasting character of Democrat supporters may be a problem: the Democrat coalition is more diverse than the Republicans’ and thus harder to marshal.

In the special Senate race, the bitter fight between Loeffler and Collins may limit Republican unity behind Loeffler.  Warnock also needs to unify Democrats – but may have an easier time doing so because he easily defeated his Democrat rivals, it was obvious that he would do so early on, and he did not need to attack those rivals.

Moderate Democrats – especially those who lost House and Senate races – argue that Republican scare tactics over alleged Democrat radicalism were highly effective and the main reason for their party’s disappointing performance. Republicans are continuing with this tactic. However, it is now limited by their own success: The best the Democrats can do is get 50 seats in the Senate – which means every single one of those 50 Senators (including several in very red states like Joe Manchin in West Virginia) will have a veto. Against any threat, Warner and Ossoff can each say “I won’t vote for that” and that kills it.

Both Ossoff and Warnock are relative liberals – not so radical as Republicans paint them, but not the kind of Joe Manchin-style conservative Democrats who might have more crossover appeal in a reddish state. Loeffler has run adverts describing herself as more conservative than Attila the Hun and joking about killing liberals. Unable to tack effectively to the centre, she is seeking to portray Warnock as an extreme progressive. Warnock has a good ad rejecting this.  

Georgia’s voters will know exactly what will happen if Republicans retain control of the Senate: nothing – two years, and likely four, of gridlock, paralysis, frustration and Government shutdowns. No problems will be solved and most will get worse. They know this because that is exactly what happened to Obama after 2010. 

The poorer-than-they-expected performance by Democrats was partly because Trump motivated a whole lot of low-engagement voters to vote. These people despise elites and love Trump because he is an anti-politician.  They also don’t respond to pollsters questions and are a big part of why the polls were wrong. These people have little love for regular Republican politicians, and without Trump himself on the ballot they are less likely to vote.

A key part of the Democrat vote was people who were normally Republican but wanted to eject Trump from the White House. Many of these split their ticket – but  many did not and may now “go home” to Republicans their primary goal has been accomplished. On the other hand, the fact that Trump is not going quietly may help sustain that support.   

Democrats may benefit from a Biden honeymoon effect, though polarisation would restrict its scale, and evidence for any such effect is limited so far.

The widespread belief in massive Democrat fraud may depress Republican turnout. Why vote when the outcome is pre-ordained? And some MAGA activists are even calling for a boycott because Loeffler and Perdue are not Trumpy enough (!).

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