Georgia Senate Runoffs: Paths to Victory for Both Parties

January 4, 2021 · 9:57 AM EST

By Ryan Matsumoto & Bradley Wascher

On Tuesday, voters in Georgia will have the chance to dramatically shape the course of the Biden presidency. If both Democrats (Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock) emerge victorious in the state’s Senate runoff elections, Democrats will control the legislative and executive branches of government. But if just one of the Republicans (incumbent David Perdue or Sen. Kelly Loeffler) wins, Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell will remain majority leader.

As we approach the grand finale of the 2020 election cycle, let’s take a look at the strongest arguments in favor of each side winning.

The Case for Democrats
In November, Joe Biden became the first Democrat to win Georgia at the presidential level since Bill Clinton in 1992. Although Georgia has generally voted Republican in recent years, it is clear that Georgia is now a battleground state. And that is a positive for Democrats when trends at the presidential level have generally trickled downballot.

Despite Biden’s win, Democrats trailed Republicans in both Senate elections during the first round of voting. In the regular Senate election, Perdue edged out Ossoff 49.73 percent to 47.95 percent. And in the special Senate election, which featured 20 candidates from all parties on the same ballot, Republican candidates combined for 49.37 percent of the vote compared to Democratic candidates’ 48.40 percent.

The basic formula for Democrats to win the runoffs is to make gains either via turnout or persuasion.

On the turnout front, early voting data is looking good for Democrats. According to data compiled by Michael McDonald, a professor of political science at University of Florida, more than 3 million Georgia voters have already voted.

Early voters so far are 30.8 percent Non-Hispanic Black (compared to 27.7 percent in the general election) and 55.8 percent Non-Hispanic White (compared to 56.5 percent in the general election). In a racially polarized state such as Georgia, an electorate that is less white will benefit Democrats. Based on demographic data and past primary vote history, Nate Cohn of the New York Times estimates that Biden won about 56.6 percent of the two-party vote among runoff early voters, compared to 52.8 percent among general election early voters.

Beyond turnout, Ossoff and Warnock could also gain ground via persuasion — winning over voters who voted for Republican Senate candidates in the first round. One issue that may help Democrats is stimulus checks. Some recent polling has found that larger stimulus checks are overwhelmingly popular with the public. President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats have favored $2,000 checks, but McConnell and other Senate Republicans have blocked the measure. Although Ossoff, Warnock, Loeffler, and Perdue have all come out in favor of $2,000 checks, it’s possible that some voters may vote for Democrats to ensure that McConnell can’t block them.

Another possibility is that the voters who split their ticket for Biden and Perdue may be turned off from the Republican Party in general because of Trump’s refusal to concede the election. This issue may be especially salient given that 12 Senate Republicans have vowed to object to the Electoral College results on January 6, the day after the Georgia elections. 

It’s also possible that Trump’s tweets about the Senate runoff elections being “illegal and invalid” could depress Republican turnout, helping Ossoff and Warnock. And according to Georgia-based conservative radio talk show host Erick Erickson, some Georgia Republicans are concerned that news of the president’s call with Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger will hurt GOP chances as well. 

The Case for Republicans
The strongest argument in favor of Republicans is that they had narrow pluralities in both elections in the first round. In the regular Senate election, Perdue edged out Ossoff by 1.78 points. And in the special Senate election, Republican candidates combined for a 0.97-point lead over Democratic candidates.

If no one changes their mind from November to January and neither side has a relative turnout advantage compared to November, Perdue and Loeffler will win.

The key factor here is that a small but decisive percentage of voters split their tickets for Biden and Perdue. Precinct-level analysis by Lenny Bronner at The Washington Post found that Perdue tended to outperform Trump the most in affluent, highly-educated, whiter suburban neighborhoods in the Atlanta suburbs. Daily Kos Elections found that while Biden won Georgia’s 6th Congressional District (which includes parts of Cobb, Fulton, and DeKalb counties) by 11 points, Ossoff only won it by 5 points.

On the turnout front, it is true that Democrats are doing better in the early vote than they did in the general election. But this doesn’t mean that Republicans are doomed. Republicans can easily turn out in big numbers on Election Day, erasing Democrats’ early vote lead. It’s possible, for example, that Republican voters who voted early in the general election may have gotten busy with the holidays and are just planning to vote on Election Day instead. Another possibility is that Trump’s continued attacks on election integrity could make more Republican voters insistent on voting on Election Day rather than early.

There are also opportunities for Republicans to flip voters who voted for Democratic Senate candidates in the first round. One potentially convincing argument is the divided government argument — swing voters who do not feel particularly strongly towards either party may decide to vote for Perdue or Loeffler to ensure that a Republican Senate can act as a check on President Biden.

Republicans may also be able to take advantage of hundreds of millions of dollars of negative advertisements against Warnock and Ossoff. As Inside Elections has reported, Warnock emerged from the first round relatively unscathed because Loeffler was preoccupied with edging out GOP Rep. Doug Collins for a spot in the runoff. But since then, Republicans have made a sustained push to label Warnock as a ‘radical liberal’ with anti-police and anti-military positions. They’ve also spent millions of dollars attacking Ossoff as a socialist who wants to defund the police and give amnesty to undocumented immigrants.

What Do the Polls Say?
Unsurprisingly, polls of the two runoffs suggest that both races could go either way. In a majority of the toplines released since November, the gaps between the candidates fell within the surveys’ respective margins of error, albeit showing very slight advantages for the Democrats.

An average of the seven most recent polls (all of which were conducted over the past two weeks) indicates the same: Ossoff at 49.7 percent, compared to Perdue at 47.5 percent; and Warnock at 49.8 percent, compared to Loeffler at 47.5 percent. Again, though, these differences still fall within the margins of error calculated for both averages.

One additional grain of salt should be taken with these numbers — second-round surveys might not be as reliable as their first-round counterparts. Whereas November’s contest attracted the interest of major outlets using high-quality methodologies, data about the upcoming runoff has primarily come from organizations with less certain track records and practices.

To be sure, Georgia was among the best-performing states for pollsters on November 3rd, as pre-election surveys missed the eventual Senate results by only 2 points. But because the runoffs are also set to end with razor-thin margins, some reputable outlets might simply be scared to stake their reputations on what will amount to a coin flip, and are instead choosing to sit this one out. For that reason, the polls’ prognosis is at the same time both clear and muddied: it’ll be close.

The Bottom Line
Ultimately, there are several different indicators that each side can point to heading into Election Day. For Democrats, the early vote data shows that their voters are showing up, putting the pressure on Republicans to turn out big on Election Day. For Republicans, Perdue’s 1.78 point advantage in the first round provides a solid baseline that may be difficult for Democrats to overcome via differential turnout or persuasion. The polls point to a very close race, albeit one where Democrats might have the slightest advantage. One thing is clear — we are headed for a photo finish in one of the most dramatic election cycles in recent memory.