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Democrats Have A Slight Edge In The Georgia 6 Runoff

Democrat Jon Ossoff fell just short in his bid to capture the seat representing Georgia’s 6th Congressional District in a first-round knockout. Polls show a tight race, but it looks like he might have better luck in next week’s decisive Round 2.

The June 20 runoff in the Georgia 6 special congressional election pits Ossoff, a former congressional aide, against Republican Karen Handel, Georgia’s former secretary of state. In the first round April 18, Ossoff won 48 percent of the vote, far more than any of the other 17 candidates but short of the 50 percent he would have needed to win outright. (Georgia uses a so-called jungle primary, in which all candidates regardless of party affiliation run against each other.) Handel came in second with 20 percent of the vote, earning the right to face Ossoff in the runoff.

Ossoff was hovering around a majority ahead of the primary, and the same is true now. But there is a key difference: Polls now show that he is expected to receive just over 50 percent of the vote on June 20; he polled just under 50 percent in the primary on average.

Ossoff has held a small lead over Handel in runoff surveys, and it appears to be widening.

June 46% 51% +5.0
May 47 49 +2.0
April 46 47 +0.5
March 43 44 +0.5
Ossoff is picking up votes heading into the runoff

Percentages are rounded.

Sources: Various pollsters, Wikipedia

Whereas Ossoff was ahead by less than 1 point in an average of polls taken in March (before the primary, but after Handel emerged as the leading Republican candidate), he was ahead by an average of 5 points in the two polls with an end date in June. Crucially, the June polls show Ossoff winning 51 percent of the vote, or 53 percent when undecided voters are allocated proportionally. In the three weeks leading up to the primary, he averaged just 42 percent of the vote, or 46 percent once undecideds were allocated. Put another way, a Round 1 win for Ossoff would have meant the polls had underestimated him. In the runoff, he appears to be in good shape unless the polls are overestimating him.

The race remains too close to call. Ossoff’s lead is slim, especially given the past accuracy of special House election polling, and we simply don’t know what to expect voter turnout to be in Round 2 compared with Round 1. Still, it’s significant that Ossoff has maintained and even widened his lead as voters make up their minds, because it suggests that undecided voters aren’t overwhelmingly Republican. It’s possible that Handel will pick up the vast majority of the remaining undecided voters in the campaign’s final days, but there’s no reason to expect that to happen.

Ossoff’s small lead in Round 2 shouldn’t be too surprising because it’s exactly what the polls before Round 1 indicated might happen. Yes, the Republican candidates combined to beat the Democratic candidates by a 51 percent to 49 percent margin, which in theory means that, holding turnout steady, Handel will win if she can hold onto the Republican voters from Round 1. Before the primary, though, five polls suggested that was unlikely.

Emerson College 45% 49% 47% 49%
Opinion Savvy (1) 42 55 44 42
Revily 45 48 47 46
Lake Research Partners 42 40 45 45
Opinion Savvy (2) 42 52 42 41
Average 43 49 45 45
Polls before the April primary showed Ossoff outperforming Democrats’ primary performance in a hypothetical runoff

All Dems and all Reps are the cumulative percentages for candidates of each party for the primary.

Sources: Emerson College, Lake Research Partners, Opinion Savvy, Revily

In those five surveys, the Republican candidates combined beat the Democratic candidates combined by a 49 percent to 43 percent margin. Those same five polls had Ossoff and Handel even at 45 percent in a then-hypothetical runoff. That is, Ossoff was picking up support that wasn’t originally going to Democratic candidates, and support wasn’t coalescing around Handel from voters who planned to cast a ballot for the other Republican candidates in the first round.

To be clear, Handel will almost certainly win the vast majority of the votes that went to the other Republican candidates in the runoff. If you assume she’s holding all of her Round 1 voters and there hasn’t been a change in turnout, the current polling has her earning about 80 percent to 85 percent of the vote that went to the other Republican candidates.1 The problem is that because she finished Round 1 with only 20 percent, and the cumulative Republican vote was barely more than 50 percent, she needs closer to 100 percent of the non-Handel Republican vote to reach a majority in the runoff. That may be a little much to ask of a candidate who has lost two major statewide primaries in the last seven years. Ossoff, meanwhile, has a much smaller hill to climb among Republicans in order to win the runoff because he won 48 percent of all voters in Round 1. If he wins all the voters who cast a ballot for a Democrat in the primary, he needs to pick up only about 4 percent of those non-Handel first-round Republican votes to earn a majority.

Indeed, Handel’s ability to corral the necessary non-Handel Republican votes from Round 1 could make or break her candidacy. The polling is close enough that a small change in turnout combined with a small shift in voter preferences would be more than enough for her to overcome her deficit. If the current polling holds, Handel’s just a normal polling error away from winning — but she, not Ossoff, needs that error. Either way, this one’s probably going down to the wire.


  1. The most recent Landmark Communications poll has her earning 83 percent of the vote from self-identified Republicans.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.