Senate in the balance: How Georgia's runoffs break down

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The most tightly divided state in the nation will decide on Tuesday which party controls the Senate — and in true 2020 fashion, we might not know who won on election night.

All signs point to a photo finish in Georgia’s twin Senate runoffs, two months after President-elect Joe Biden carried the state by two-tenths of a percentage point. The limited polling slightly favors Democrats, but most surveys are well inside the margin of error. The early vote has favored Democrats too, but November’s elections demonstrated how strong GOP voting on Election Day can quickly match or erase those advantages.

If Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock win both Georgia races — the regular election for a six-year term and a special election for two years in the Senate — they will achieve a 50-50 tie in the chamber and flip the majority once Vice President-elect Kamala Harris is sworn in for her tiebreaking role.

In another sign of the bizarre and unusual in these campaigns, one of the Republican incumbents, David Perdue, actually saw his first Senate term expire on Sunday before voters decide whether to extend his tour in Washington in this overtime race. Appointed Sen. Kelly Loeffler is the other Republican on the ballot, with the GOP needing one win to maintain control of the Senate.

After more than 3 million early votes, a half-billion dollars in non-stop television ads and 11th-hour visits from both the outgoing and incoming presidents, here’s where the dramatic last act of the 2020 election stands.

The polling

Most of the prominent national polling firms are sitting out the Georgia runoffs, which are coming two months after an election in which the polls again underestimated Trump and Republicans down the ballot.

FiveThirtyEight has collected 27 polls of the runoffs, which average out to show leads of about 2 points each for both Democratic candidates, Ossoff and Warnock.

But greater skepticism should apply, and not just because the polling industry as a whole had trouble in November. Most of the surveys that have been published in Georgia come from pollsters that have less-established track records. Only four of the 27 polls were conducted by firms FiveThirtyEight gives a “B” grade or better.

Who’s already voted

Georgia doesn’t have partisan voter registration, so it’s not clear which party has a turnout advantage going into Tuesday. But most signs point to a stronger Democratic performance in early voting, and a weaker Republican showing: Turnout among Black voters is up slightly. By percentage of general election turnout, the top five congressional districts for early votes are all held by Democrats.

That’s particularly important because most operatives involved in Georgia believe that roughly three-quarters of the total ballots in the race have already been cast. The early turnout of more than 3 million people — a combination of voters who showed up in person for early voting, along with mail ballots that have already arrived and been processed — is already a record for a Georgia runoff election, even before counting Tuesday’s Election Day turnout.

Republicans have always been counting on stronger Election Day turnout, particularly after Trump’s unfounded attacks against Georgia’s election systems — particularly absentee voting —accelerated since he lost Georgia to Biden.

Total turnout in November was roughly 5 million voters, but most strategists expect about 4 million voters will take part in the runoffs — meaning about 1 million votes are left to be cast on Tuesday. Republicans likely need to win them by a significant margin.

Five places to watch — especially where down-ballot Democrats lagged Biden in November

Metro Atlanta: Atlanta has long been a Democratic city, but its suburbs have now shifted to make the region a Democratic bastion.

The counties around Atlanta’s Fulton County have swung sharply away from Republicans in recent years. Of the 10 counties that constitute immediate Metro Atlanta, Mitt Romney won half of them in 2012. Trump carried only two in November 2020.

Despite this movement toward Democrats in the presidential race, Ossoff lagged behind Biden here. Biden ran 3 points better than Ossoff in Fulton County, 2 points better in Cobb County, 2 points in Gwinnett County and 2 points in DeKalb County. In order to win on Tuesday, Ossoff and Warnock need Biden-like margins in Metro Atlanta.

The election will show how much Republican DNA these suburban Atlanta counties still have: If Perdue and Loeffler can outrun Trump the way Perdue did in November, it would be a major boost to the Republicans’ chances.

Columbus: Georgia’s third-largest city, situated alongside the Chattahoochee River and bordering Alabama, hasn’t received a lot of attention in previous statewide races.

That’s changed in the runoffs, with both parties descending on the area, seeking even the slimmest edge in close contests. Biden won 61 percent of the vote in Columbus, and Ossoff captured 60 percent. But Republicans hope they can make inroads in the rural counties outside Columbus.

The “Black Belt”: Running along the state’s midsection from Augusta to the east and Columbus to the west, a collection of rural counties with majority or near-majority Black populations could be decisive in the Senate races.

Trump ran a little better than past Republicans here — buoyed by rural whites and slight increases among Black voters — as did Perdue. Watch Baldwin County (42 percent Black), home to Milledgeville: Biden won it by only a single point, and Perdue carried it by about half a point. Back in 2012, Barack Obama won Baldwin County by 6 points.

Northwest Georgia: Trump’s election-eve rally on Monday night was in Dalton, in the state’s northwest corner near the Tennessee border.

That was no coincidence: Dalton is Trump Country, but Republicans must get a big Election Day turnout there to reach the statewide benchmarks they need.

In November, Trump won 70 percent of the vote in Whitfield County, which includes Dalton, and earned even higher percentages in the surrounding counties. The GOP candidates can expect to earn roughly three out of every four votes from the area.

And there are more votes outstanding there. According to the website Georgia Votes, Georgia’s 14th Congressional District, which includes Dalton and is held by far-right, freshman Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), has the second-fewest number of early and absentee votes compared to November turnout.

The Atlantic Coast: Most of Southeast Georgia is solidly Republican, but Democrats can’t ignore majority-Black Savannah, where Vice President-elect Kamala Harris rallied on Sunday for Ossoff and Warnock, who touts his roots in Savannah.

Chatham County, which includes Savannah, was Warnock’s strongest in the 20-candidate special election in November, and Biden won 59 percent of the vote there.

Farther south, Glynn County is home to Brunswick and some of the tiny seaside towns like Sea Island and St. Simons Island. Trump won 61 percent of the vote in Glynn, but a slightly better benchmark for the Republicans might be Romney’s 63 percent in 2012.

How they’ll count

Back in November, it took days to resolve Georgia’s big-ticket races. It was more than 48 hours after polls closed before news organizations were able to project that the Perdue-Ossoff race would go to a runoff. It took four more days — the Monday after the election — before the presidential race was called for Biden.

But those contests were both extremely close: Perdue finished with 49.7 percent of the vote, just a hair shy of the majority he needed to win outright. And Biden’s margin of victory over Trump was even slimmer: 0.2 points.

If either or both of the Senate runoffs on Tuesday are decided by similar margins, it could be days before we know who won, and there will likely be shifts during the count. In November, Election Day votes were counted earlier and late-arriving mail votes tabulated later, though counties can start counting early and mail votes before Election Day to speed up the process. Moreover, some of the more populous counties in the state typically take longer to count their votes, and those counties lean toward Democrats.

That means it’s likely the two Republican candidates will lead the vote count earlier Tuesday night, and Democrats will make gains as the count concludes. That pattern resembles what happened two months ago, when Trump led earlier in the count but slipped behind (and falsely claimed fraud was responsible for the change).

If you think of the election as a race for Republicans to catch up to Democrats’ early-voting advantage on Election Day, think of the vote count as the opposite. The GOP incumbents will likely build a lead early in the counting process — can Democrats catch up?

The money

The races have shattered fundraising records: Ossoff and Warnock each raised over $100 million over a two-month stretch from mid-October to mid-December. The GOP candidates haven’t fared too badly either, raising sums that would be historic if they weren’t dwarfed by their opponents.

Republicans have made up the difference in outside spending — a costly venture, given that super PACs pay substantially higher rates for advertising than candidates. And it’s all resulted in an avalanche of TV advertising.

Just in the past two months, Ossoff has spent $86 million on TV ads, easily outpacing Perdue’s $50 million, according to figures compiled by AdImpact. In order to keep pace, GOP-aligned outside groups have spent about $84 million in regular election, compared to only $29.2 million for Democrats.

The outside spending gap is nearly identical in the special election, where Warnock has a smaller but still significant advantage in candidate spending over Loeffler. But some of the Democratic money has gone into field programs, including work by Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight, which raised $22 million in roughly a month late last year.

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