Control of the Senate will come down to a double runoff election on January 5 in Georgia, after Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock both pulled their Republican rivals below the 50% threshold for victory and forced a do-over in the November general. Warnock, in his race against incumbent Kelly Loeffler, finished seven points ahead of her, albeit within a field crowded with eight candidates receiving more than 1% of the vote. Republican David Perdue finished just under two points ahead of Ossoff, and was denied outright victory by far less than the number of votes received by Libertarian Shane Hazel.
The runoff occurs against the backdrop of many concurrent political narratives. President-elect Joe Biden won Georgia’s 16 electoral votes by the thinnest of margins in November after two recounts and repeated certification. At the same time, Sidney Powell and Lin Wood, two lawyers at times representing the Trump campaign, have repeatedly attempted to overturn the results of the Georgia election through litigation, public spectacle, and utilization of an increasingly insular right-wing media. Both have discouraged Georgia Republicans from participating in the runoff election, on the grounds that the results have been predetermined. Third, both Republican candidates have been the subjects of heightened mainstream media scrutiny over stock trading throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
The race, needless to say, is at a complicated stage, and attempts at viewing it through a conventional horserace lens inevitably come up short. Each of these developments, as well as other structural ones (and those that may break at the last minute), make it difficult to say exactly which factors will aid which candidate. In this “Kraken-length” explainer, we’ll be attempting to deduce which candidates might have the edge in the race--and whether it’s worthwhile to attempt this thought experiment at all.
(One note: if you want just the analysis of the effects of voter fraud allegations, the Trump campaign’s litigation, and eroding trust in Georgia’s election system, feel free to skip further down).
What do the polls say?
Although the November general election certainly brought pollsters disappointment in many battleground states, Georgia was not one of them. Indeed, out of the 14 states considered to be most competitive, the FiveThirtyEight, RealClearPolitics, and The Economist polling averages were closest to the correct result in Georgia in the presidential election, each missing by 1.3 points or fewer. The average miss in the Perdue-Ossoff race across these three aggregators was less than three points; the Loeffler-Warnock race, because of its crowded field, was decidedly harder to poll, but each aggregator correctly predicted a plurality for Warnock and a runoff.
All this is to say that it wouldn’t necessarily be shrewd to discount the most recent round of runoff polling as burdened by the same methodological or structural issues that caused dramatic misses in Maine and North Carolina senate races.
But at present, polls aren’t giving us a clear indication of who might have an advantage. FiveThirtyEight’s polling average for both races found Ossoff and Warnock ahead by .3 points and 2.1 points respectively on December 7. Read correctly, these margins are enough to show that the races are as competitive as they are being treated, but they are not nearly wide enough for us to consider the runoffs a wash.
Okay, let’s move to the fundamentals. Isn’t turnout going to be down?
Predicting turnout is difficult, especially on the state level. Runoff turnout is generally lower than general election turnout, which reached 4.97 million votes in Georgia last month. In 2018, when the elections for Georgia’s secretary of state and Public Service Commission went to runoffs, turnout fell from a solid 57% to a meager 21% two months later.
Precedent tells us that we won’t see another 5 million votes cast on January 5 this time around, but we also have reason to suspect that it won’t fall all the way to 21%. Georgia’s senate runoffs, along with President-elect Biden’s steady stream of cabinet pick announcements, have taken center stage in America’s political maelstrom. Super PACs have spent $280 million on political advertising in Georgia media markets since the November general, and experts estimate the total sum may pass a half-billion by the time voters head to the polls. Developments in the race, from the outcome of the candidates’ debates to the contents of the campaigns’ new television spots, have consistently taken up top-of-the-hour space in national media outlets.These circumstances do not guarantee boosted runoff turnout, but academic studies in the field of political communications have suggested that higher ad spending can drive millennials to vote at higher rates, and that positively-toned advertising can increase turnout for both candidates without specificity to demographics.
But you said turnout was probably going to fall at least a little. Isn’t that bad for the Democrats?
It could be, and that’s been the received wisdom for quite some time. Democrats have often argued that if not for low turnout, sometimes due to Republican policy measures, Democrats would win states seen as solidly red. Beto O’Rourke, former Texas congressman and candidate for senate and president, encouraged Biden to pour ad spending into Texas, calling it neither a red state nor a blue state, but a “non-voting state.” Senator Bernie Sanders repeated that “Democrats win when the voter turnout is high. Republicans win when the voter turnout is low” in many of his campaign speeches in this cycle. But when it came to Texas and many other states, both were wrong. Texas’s turnout rose by a full 6.6% against 2016, and Democrats didn’t fare much better.
On the other hand, Georgia smashed its turnout record, and a Democrat won its presidential electors for the first time since 1992. But ultimately, the devil might be in the details. Explanations abound for Democrats’ newfound competitiveness in Georgia--their improving performance in suburban Gwinnett and DeKalb counties; the relatively high proportion of liberal-leaning Black voters in the vote-eligible population; the voter mobilization talent of former Georgia House Speaker Stacey Abrams.
What we can say for sure is that Democrats will do well if turnout rises among demographic groups where they are already favored, like young people and Black and Mexican-American voters, while Republicans will improve their standing if turnout among non-college white men rises. At the end of the day, deciphering who wins the special elections in Georgia may be a game of deducing whether turnout will fall more among the first group or the second.
Do Ossoff and Warnock have an advantage now that Trump is off the ballot?
Another good question for which there are competing answers. On one hand, the 2020 election was largely a referendum on President Trump’s performance. Polls throughout the summer showed that Trump’s voters were more enthusiastic to cast their ballots than were Biden’s supporters and undecideds. The president’s figures may have been buoyed by his ability to turn out voters who otherwise wouldn’t have voted--folks who are generally disenchanted by the political system as a whole. Perdue and Loeffler may have ridden on Trump’s coattails just enough to stave off defeat. With Trump now off the ballot, many Republicans might no longer be as interested in coming out to the polls.
But unfortunately for Ossoff and Warnock, there might be even more reasons to believe the opposite is true. While Republican voter enthusiasm numbers were initially high, polls just before the election found Democrats to have a strong edge. What’s more, Trump was a candidate with low favorability ratings: only 42.6% of Americans about a week before the election approved of his performance. Job approval polls are generally done on a national level, so data for Georgia is hard to come by, but two polls from July both showed a spread of -3 and -4 on Trump’s approval. It may actually be the case that a significant number of Republicans and conservative-leaning independents chose not to vote because of their distaste for Trump, and that Perdue and Loeffler suffered as a result. It’s important to remember that Perdue ran just ahead of Trump, suggesting that either some voters only voted in one race or cast votes for Biden and Perdue. At the same time, in the Georgia special election--now Warnock vs. Loeffler-- Republicans amassed almost exactly 50% of the total vote when put together. If the Republican senate candidates did better than Trump when the president’s name was on the ballot, there’s a non-zero chance that Trump ran on their coattails, or at least that the senators didn’t reap much benefit the first time around.
Trump isn’t on the ballot, but you could definitely say that Trumpism still is. What about that angle?
Like I mentioned at the top, Trump is very much still a presence in the race despite his absence from the ballot. President Trump has waged a high-profile battle against elected Republican officials in Georgia’s state government, like Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, both of whom he has derided as “RINOs,” or Republicans-in-name-only, for their decision to certify and stand behind Georgia’s election results. The President has sown distrust about the security of Georgia’s election machinery and ballot-counting methods, arguing that Dominion tabulation machines used across Georgia contained a “vote-flipping” algorithm that moved votes from Trump’s column to Biden’s, among a host of other allegations. Fact checks in the wake of the election have found the president’s claims to be baseless. Perhaps most significantly, Trump pressed Governor Kemp on a phone call earlier this month to call a special legislative session to throw out the results of Georgia’s election, which Kemp reportedly refused to do.
In any case, while Trump’s actions may not be leading him closer to actually overturning his loss in Georgia, they are having a significant effect on other measurable attitudes. Morning Consult found in a mid-November nationwide poll that only 29% of Republicans considered the election to be “free and fair.” The percentage of Republicans who had at least some trust in America’s election system fell from 66% before election day to 36% afterward. In terms of Georgia-specific data, SurveyUSA found that only 16% of Georgia Republicans have “full confidence” that the runoff votes will be counted accurately. Out of all the registered Republicans in that poll who said they would stay home for the runoff, 23% said the main reason was that they thought the election would be rigged.
But at the same time, President Trump is stumping for Perdue and Loeffler. As recently as December 5, Trump held a campaign-style rally in Georgia where he reiterated allegations of election fraud, attacked Ossoff and Warnock, and encouraged the state’s Republicans to re-elect the Republicans on the ballot. It’s a confusing time to be crunching numbers, because one could argue that Trump is granting Perdue and Loeffler a gift by raising their name recognition, drawing out crowds, and keeping Georgia Republicans engaged. But at the same time, his attacks on the validity of the election may be pulling the rug right out from underneath Loeffler and Perdue by alienating their voter base. To top things off, Loeffler and Perdue have aligned themselves with Trump throughout the last month, and authored a letter in early November calling for the resignation of Secretary of State Raffensperger after his defense of the election’s integrity.
What can we glean from the narrative with Sidney Powell, Lin Wood, and all the litigative efforts to overturn the results of the November election?
Well, the one thing we know for sure is that Sidney Powell and Lincoln “Lin” Wood Jr., as well as the Trump campaign itself, will not succeed in preventing Georgia’s 16 electors from voting for Biden when the college meets on December 14. Powell’s “Kraken” lawsuit, in which the lawyer claimed that the election had been rigged by groups with ties to Venezuela and coup d’états in foreign countries, was dismissed on December 8. A case brought before a panel of the Federal Appeals Court for the 11th Circuit by Wood last week was thrown out, as all three judges ruled that since Georgia had already certified its votes, the lawsuit was moot. But as quickly as courts dismiss the lawsuits challenging the results of the election, Powell, Wood, and the Trump team continue to re-file them. Powell appealed the lower court’s decision later on December 8; the Texas attorney general sued several states, including Georgia, for allegedly mishandling the election; the Trump campaign sued in Fulton county this week, alleging that tens of thousands of voters had cast ballots illegally. All are expected to be either dismissed out of hand or, in the case of Texas’s suit against multiple swing states, ignored.
All this litigation is likely to continue right up until December 14, when the electoral college will meet to formally pronounce Joe Biden the next president, and perhaps even afterward. The same poll numbers that show a significant decline in Georgia Republicans’ trust in the election process could reflect the effects of the lawsuits and the rhetoric of their legal representatives, and not just Trump. Wood, for instance, made headlines at a rally on December 2 when he said of Loeffler and Perdue, “They have not earned your vote. Don't you give it to them. Why would you go back and vote in another rigged election for god's sake!” There are admittedly few ways to spin any of this as good news for Loeffler and Perdue.
One cause for optimism for the Republicans may lie in one of the more under-reported stories of the last few weeks. Gabriel Sterling, an official with the Secretary of State’s office, indeed went viral on December 1 after a press conference where he called on Trump to cease undermining confidence in Georgia’s election results, because, in Sterling’s words, "Someone's going to get hurt, someone's going to get shot, someone's going to get killed." But what generated almost no headlines was his admission on NPR soon afterward that even he would be voting for Loeffler and Perdue, despite their support for Trump’s cause. It serves as little more than anecdotal evidence, but it is at the very least a caution that very little can prevent people from voting consistently with their party affiliation.
Finally, what effect will information about Loeffler and Perdue’s stock trades have?
Again, I’m afraid I have to disappoint: we don’t know. Cal Cunningham, the Democratic candidate for senate in North Carolina, lost his race after he confirmed the veracity of explicit text messages between himself and someone besides his wife. Cunningham had led narrowly in the polls up until the race, suggesting that maybe the sexting scandal caused him to lose popularity. But Joe Biden also underperformed polls in North Carolina, and in the interim period between the revelations about Cunningham and election day itself, polls did not show a significant drop in his level of support. Other working theories are simply that the most salient issue in the entire election for most voters were Trump, the coronavirus pandemic, and the state of racial tension, and voters were willing to put scandalous information in the back of their minds.
It could be the same in Georgia. Kelly Loeffler was reported back in April to have dumped millions of dollars in shares after attending a private briefing on the coronavirus pandemic, together with her husband, who is CEO of the firm that owns the New York Stock Exchange. Acting on inside information would be a criminal offense, but Loeffler was cleared by both the Senate Ethics Committee in June and the Department of Justice a month prior. Perdue is by far the Senate’s most prolific stock trader, having made over 2,500 transactions during the last six years. This alone is no issue--but Perdue sits on a number of committees, including the cybersecurity subcommittee, and has made purchases and sales of companies directly related to material he may be authorized to privately access as a result of his position.
Warnock and Ossoff have attempted to draw this information into the center of the race, which may already be too saturated with the other political narratives we’ve discussed above to significantly change voters’ minds. Loeffler and Perdue have attempted to avoid discussion over the stock trading, as Loeffler switched gears when asked about the legality of her trades, and Perdue chose to skip his scheduled debate with Ossoff.
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