The two Senate runoffs in Georgia are tighter than a 35-minute connection at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. According to FiveThirtyEight’s polling averages as of 6 p.m. Eastern on Jan. 3, Democrat Jon Ossoff leads Republican Sen. David Perdue 49.2 percent to 47.4 percent in the regular Senate election, while Democrat Raphael Warnock leads Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler 49.5 percent to 47.2 percent in the special Senate election.
And the two races have consistently been about that close since the first round of voting on Nov. 3. So at this point, we don’t really need more polls to tell us what we already know: These races could go either way. In fact, between the polls, the fundraising numbers, the early-voting data and the November results, both parties can find reasons to be optimistic heading into election day tomorrow. So we thought we’d lay out the case for each side, high-school-debate style. Nathaniel will outline all the reasons why Democrats are favored, and then Geoffrey will make the case for why Republicans will come out on top. Then, you be the judge as to which argument is more persuasive — let us know in the comments or on Twitter. (And don’t forget to tune into our live blog on Tuesday night as well.)
Why many pollsters are sitting out the Georgia runoffs
Nathaniel: The case for Democrats
As mentioned, Ossoff and Warnock each lead in our polling average by about 2 percentage points. To be sure, those numbers still point to an election that could go either way, but if you had to choose a favorite based on them, you’d have to pick the Democrats. I know polling had an off year in 2020, but the reality is that polls are still our best tool for forecasting elections, and it’s really hard, if not impossible, to predict which direction any polling error will run. Plus, while it’s true that polling of the 2020 election overall wasn’t very accurate, polls of Georgia were actually pretty good: FiveThirtyEight’s final polling average of the presidential race in the Peach State was just 1 point off the final margin.
It’s not just the polling, though: The fundraising numbers look even better for Democrats. From Oct. 15 to Dec. 16, Ossoff raised $106.8 million and Warnock raised $103.4 million. Not only is that more than Perdue’s $68.1 million and Loeffler’s $64.0 million, but it’s also more than any Senate candidate had ever raised in a single quarter before (and Oct. 15-Dec. 16 is only two months, not three!).
True, when you factor in spending by outside groups, the money race is closer. Pro-Republican outside groups have spent $180.5 million on TV ads since Nov. 10, while pro-Democratic outside groups have spent just $63.1 million. However, outside groups pay full freight for TV airtime, whereas TV stations are required to charge candidates their lowest rates. So even though pro-Republican forces (i.e., the campaigns and outside groups combined) have spent more on TV advertising than pro-Democratic forces, the Democratic side is actually airing more ads because they are getting better bang for their buck.
Early-voting data is also encouraging for Democrats, as it shows solid turnout among the Democratic base in Georgia: Black voters. According to www.georgiavotes.com, an unofficial vote-tracking website that uses publicly available data from the secretary of state, 31 percent of voters so far are Black. That’s significant because that’s a much higher share than at this point in the general election (when the Black share of the electorate reached its lowest point since 2006, hurting Democrats in November but giving them ample room to grow in the runoff). Now, that’s no guarantee that Black turnout will stay that high when all is said and done, but so far it looks like Democrats are doing what they need to do in order to improve upon their November performance and win the runoffs.
Indeed, Georgia has changed; it’s not the stubbornly red state it once was. In November, Joe Biden became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry Georgia since 1992. And while Republicans ran a hair ahead of Democrats in both Senate races in the general, that low Black voter turnout suggests Democrats underachieved their true potential. Plus, our estimates suggest that, had the special election been a head-to-head matchup between Warnock and Loeffler, Warnock might have won. According to our research into past runoffs, both the two-party margin and the margin between the top two finishers are predictive of runoff results, so it’s actually pretty promising for Democrats that Warnock finished 7 points ahead of Loeffler in November.
And to counter an argument you’ll hear when Geoffrey takes the floor, there’s no guarantee Republicans will do better in the runoffs than they did in the general election. The factors that have hurt Democrats in past runoffs are arguably no longer true. More people have voted in this runoff than any other runoff in Georgia history, making the general election a better comparison than past runoffs. Black voter turnout has generally decreased in past runoffs; this year, it looks like it might increase. The suburbs — which have historically punched above their weight in runoffs — have shed their ancestral Republicanism and now lean Democratic. What’s more, President Trump’s refusal to concede the election could keep Democratic voters motivated, while his bogus claims that American elections are “rigged” could actually depress Republican turnout (why vote at all if your vote allegedly isn’t going to count?).
Basically, with this runoff having the unusual distinction of deciding control of the entire U.S. Senate, all precedents — which tend to favor Republicans — are out the window. Instead, we have a bunch of data that looks promising for Democrats.
Why Georgia isn’t like the other battleground states
Geoffrey: The case for Republicans
Republicans may be slightly behind in the polls, but we should be cautious about reading too much into these surveys as it’s hard to say the slim Democratic edge is all that meaningful. Polls have routinely disagreed over who is in the lead and nearly every survey has fallen within the margin of error. What’s more, there just haven’t been that many high quality polls — just two of the 16 firms that have surveyed Georgia since November have a FiveThirtyEight pollster rating that is higher than a B. This is unfortunate, but not surprising given many pollsters are gun-shy after polling misses in November. Simply put, a small polling error in the GOP’s direction wouldn’t be that surprising and furthermore, it would be enough to give Loeffler and Perdue the advantage.
Republicans also trail in fundraising, but here, too, it’s unclear whether Democrats really have an advantage. First, both Loeffler and Perdue have still raised plenty of moolah, and studies find that in situations where both campaigns are well-funded and neither side has a real ad-buy advantage, their efforts tend to cancel each other out. Second, much of the money fueling these campaigns is from out of state. This is true for the Republicans’ campaigns, but it’s especially true for the Democrats’, meaning the mountains of cash pouring in doesn’t tell us all that much about Georgia voter preferences. As we saw in November, strong fundraising numbers for Democratic Senate nominees were largely a smoke screen — many fell short despite significantly outraising their GOP opponents. Granted, some of these races were in states far redder than Georgia, but this was also true in Maine, a state Biden carried, and North Carolina, a state Trump narrowly carried.
True, Republicans don’t have a clear upper hand in the polls or fundraising game, but that might not tell as much about what will happen as the actual results from November. In both Senate contests, Republican contenders had a stronger down-ballot performance, meaning they have less ground to make up than the Democrats. In the regular Senate election, Perdue led Ossoff by about 1.8 points and finished just 0.3 points shy of an outright majority, even as Trump lost to Biden by about 0.3 points at the top of the ticket. And in the special Senate election, in which multiple candidates from both parties ran, the aggregate Republican vote led the aggregate Democratic vote by 1 point. And perhaps most importantly, Republican Senate candidates did slightly better than Trump in the Atlanta metropolitan area, helped by split-ticket voters in affluent and predominantly white communities such as Buckhead in north Atlanta. Provided these voters stick with the GOP tomorrow, that could be enough for Loeffler and Perdue to carry the day.
The early vote numbers hold some promise for the GOP, too. While the increase in the share of Black voters is an auspicious sign for Democrats, there are signs the runoff electorate will be older, which may be promising for Republicans as older voters are more likely to identify as Republican. Voters 56 and older have already cast 52.1 percent of early and absentee ballots in the runoff, according to data from the U.S. Elections Project, up from 45.5 percent in the general election. Now, it’s impossible to know in advance whether an older electorate will, in fact, prove more Republican-leaning. The New York Times’s Upshot found in November, for instance, that areas with high concentrations of older Georgia voters moved slightly to the left from 2016. Nonetheless, a stronger performance among early voters for the GOP would probably be all she wrote — especially considering early and absentee voters cast 80 percent of all votes in November and the in-person Election Day vote is likely to lean heavily Republican; Trump won these voters by 22 points in November.
Lastly, while Nathaniel poo-pooed it, the GOP does have a history of doing better in runoffs than the Democrats. Outside of one 1998 runoff for a seat on the state’s public service commission, Republicans have always gained at least a little ground in the runoff compared to the general election. True, we only have a sample size of eight, but some of the factors that contributed to Republican runoff success in the past could still come into play, like an older electorate. And remember, if the Republicans improve on their November showing — or even just hold serve — they win.
There are some pretty good arguments on both sides, if we do say so ourselves! In fact, it’s entirely possible that we’ll both be proven right. Partisanship will ensure that almost all voters vote a straight Democratic (Ossoff and Warnock) or Republican (Perdue and Loeffler) ticket, but as the slightly different polling averages suggest, there are probably a handful of Perdue-Warnock (or Ossoff-Loeffler) voters out there. And if the races are super close — and by all accounts, they will be — a split outcome isn’t out of the question. (Of course, that would qualify as a loss for Democrats, given that they need to win both seats in order to achieve a 50-50 split in the Senate, which would then grant them control of the chamber thanks to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote.)
We’ll find out on Tuesday night — maybe. Although Georgia counted the vast majority (upward of 90 percent) of its votes on election night, a close race would take a few more days to resolve. Indeed, that is exactly what happened in the general election. No matter what, we’ll be live-blogging it all from start to finish, so be sure to join us back here on Tuesday evening. Polls close at 7 p.m. Eastern.