This article was originally published for the National Journal on January 5, 2021.
Originally, this column was going to begin with the observation that, with the two Senate runoffs concluding in Georgia on Tuesday and Congress taking up the Electoral College results on Wednesday, the 2020 election campaign will finally be over.
Then the nightmares started. What if one or both Georgia contests are close enough to require recounts? After all, the state is as evenly divided as any in the country, both races are awfully close, the stakes are so high, and politics has certainly become litigious enough that it could happen. And what if the effort by something like 140 House Republicans and as many as a dozen GOP senators to delay acceptance of the Electoral College results succeeds, even if only for another day or two? Either prospect sends chills down the spine. For that matter, what over the last five years has gone as it “should have”?
According to the authoritative website Georgia Votes, 3,041,581 voters have already cast a ballot, almost a quarter below the 3,936,215 that had already voted as of the day before the November election. But this is still a very high number and easily a record for a runoff, when turnout is usually quite low. Of those that have already cast their ballots according to Georgia Votes, 966,702 voted by mail (down 22 percent from November) and 2,074,879 were cast early in person (a 23 percent drop).
These numbers give Democrats a pretty good lead heading into Election Day. Key strategists for both sides privately speculate that if the number of votes cast on Election Day is 800,000 or less, Republicans will likely lose both seats. But if it's more, the GOP's chances start going up. In other words, Republicans need a big in-person vote Tuesday to make up for the ground they'll lose during the early-voting period.
Notwithstanding criticism of polling since Nov. 3, public and private surveying in Georgia was very much on the mark in 2020. And just like the presidential and Senate polls last fall, the runoffs are too close to call.
Unreleased surveys for both sides show the two races to be very close, as reflected in the FiveThirtyEight modeled average of public polling, which shows Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff leading Republican Sen. David Perdue by 1.6 points, 49 to 47.4 percent. In the special election, Democrat Raphael Warnock leads appointed Sen. Kelly Loeffler by 2 points, 49.3 to 47.3 percent. The RealClearPolitics poll averages show Ossoff ahead by 1 point and Warnock leading by 1.3 points.
Among the multiple pollsters for each party doing work in the two races, one explained to me that since just about everyone agrees that the race is well within the statistical margin of error, most of the polling they are doing is of specific demographic or political subgroups, like African Americans, Latinos, or soft Republicans.
Only two surveys by national-level political pollsters have been made public, one from each party. The Democratic Mellman Group released a memo on a poll they conducted for DMFI PAC (Democratic Majority for Israel PAC) among 578 voters from Dec. 18-22. It showed Ossoff and Warnock each leading their GOP opponents by 3 points, 50 to 47 percent.
Axios is reporting another survey from the pro-Trump super PAC Preserve America, conducted this past weekend by Adam Geller and National Research. The sample of 500 likely voters showed Ossoff and Warnock both up by 1 point, 46 to 45 percent. According to Axios, among those who voted early, Ossoff had an 18-point lead over Perdue, 54 to 36 percent, but among those who were planning to vote on Election Day, Perdue had an identical 54-to-36-percent lead. Similarly, presumed Tuesday voters in the other contest favored Loeffler by 19 points, 55 to 36 percent.
These numbers underscore that for Republicans, the ball game comes down to how many of their people show up Tuesday.
This, of course, raises the question of whether President Trump’s profoundly ill-conceived phone call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, asking him to “find” 11,780 votes for Trump, will make a difference or not. It’s plausible that some Republicans might become disillusioned and not vote Tuesday, or Democrats who might not have otherwise voted become so incensed that they turn out.
But then again, how many things has Trump said or done over the last four years that would logically have a certain political repercussion, only to bounce right off of him? Perdue and Loeffler are hoping some of his Teflon coating rubs off.
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