Georgia runoffs: how Republicans lost 140,000 votes in just 62 days

17th January 2021

Republican Senator David Purdue led by nearly 90,000 votes in the general election.

Photo Credit: vasilis asvestas / Shutterstock.com

By Andrew Hillman

By the time Democrat nominee Jon Ossoff was declared as the winner of the last seat in the US senate, attention had already turned away from Georgia to Washington D.C, where supporters of President Trump stormed the Capitol, preventing incumbent senators from certifying Joe Biden’s presidential victory.

While the insurrection will forever be a shocking part of America’s history, Ossoff’s win could prove just as important in shaping its future.

Following Democrat Raphael Warnock’s victory in the runoff for Georgia’s other senate seat, Ossoff becomes the 50th Democratic party senator. With equal numbers of Democrat and Republican senators, Vice-President Kamala Harris will now have the deciding vote on partisan bills, greatly increasing Biden’s chances of implementing his policy agenda – including tax reform, expansion of free health care coverage and investment in renewable energy.

Ossoff’s win completes an ascendant election campaign for the Democratic party in Georgia. In November, the Democrats gained over 250,000 votes from 2016 in the Atlanta suburbs as Biden became the first Democrat nominee for the presidency to win in Georgia since 1992.

Despite Biden’s victory, Ossoff trailed the incumbent Republican senator David Purdue by almost 90,000 votes in November. But Purdue failed to win 50% of the vote, triggering a runoff on January 7th.

Trump’s conduct, candidate scandals and Covid-19 give Republican voters many reasons to sit out runoffs

Past results offered Democrats little hope of a comeback. In close Georgia elections, the vote margin had shifted in favour of the Republican party between the general election and runoff on each of the previous six occasions.

However, there were many reasons to believe that the 2021 runoff would be unparalleled. With such high stakes, and following a November election where over 155 million Americans voted, record turnout from both parties’ supporters was anticipated.

But many Georgia Republicans feared lower turnout among Trump supporters than Democrats.

The GOP’s poor performance in the 2018 mid-terms had shown that persuading the party’s newest supporters to vote was difficult without Trump on the ballot.

In the 62 days between the general election and the runoff, Trump made repeated false accusations of widespread voter fraud, giving his most loyal supporters another reason not to cast a ballot in the Georgia runoff: if the election is rigged, why bother voting?

There were also concerns that more moderate Republicans would sit out the runoff in protest of Trump’s conduct – particularly his attacks on Georgia officials who refused to overturn the state’s election results.

Just days before the election, the Washington Post released a recording of Trump attempting to convince Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to overturn the result of the state’s presidential election. Trump warned Raffensperger that refusing could have implications for Republican turnout during the runoff, saying, “The people of Georgia know this was a scam. Because of what you’ve done to the president, a lot of people aren’t going out to vote, and a lot of Republicans are going to vote negative because they hate what you did to the president.”

In Trump’s absence, the Republican party would have benefitted from unblemished and charismatic candidates. Instead, both Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, who was running against Warnock for the state’s second senate seat, have been accused of insider trading – using information obtained through private senate committees to purchase and sell stocks for businesses impacted by the global pandemic. After Perdue declined to participate in a runoff debate, Ossoff, speaking alongside an empty podium, suggested that the Republican candidate was “concerned that he may incriminate himself in debate.”

And then there was the ever-present factor of 2020: Covid-19. New coronavirus cases quadrupled in Georgia between November 3rd and the January runoff, while Trump was criticised after it emerged that he had not attended a single Covid-19 task force meeting since the summer. 27% of voters in Georgia’s general election said they had lost a close friend or family member to Covid-19, including 19% of Republicans, according to exit polls conducted by the Associated Press.

Democrats persuade more voters to return to polls, and find new voters in Black communities

Turnout in the runoff was record breaking – just 9% fewer ballots were cast than in November, meaning the contest drew an incredible 300,000 more votes than Georgia’s 2016 general election.

With just two months between the general election and the runoff, it was expected that few voters would switch from one candidate to another. Instead, it was turnout – who could convince more of their supporters to return to the polls – that was expected to prove decisive.

But there was another crucial factor: the Democratic party’s ability to convince new voters to turnout.

In the past decade, largely in response to increased voter suppression tactics by Georgia’s Republican state officials, grassroot and non-profit organizations developed powerful voter registration networks. Two of these groups, Fair Fight and The New Georgia Project, were founded by politician Stacey Abrams, who has received acclaim for her voter engagement strategy in Georgia.

Following the general election, these groups continued to contact non-voters, particularly in Black, Hispanic and Asian communities, encouraging them to vote. Their efforts proved hugely profitable – 76,000 Georgians registered to vote between November and the January runoff, with new registrants being younger and more racially diverse than the overall electorate, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

2% of runoff voters did not participate in the November presidential election according to NBC News exit polls, and two-thirds of these new voters cast their ballot for Ossoff – worth in the region of 20,000-40,000 additional votes for the Democrat candidate.

Ossoff even managed to match or exceed his November vote tally in three counties – Randolph County, Taylor County and Stewart County. All three are sparsely populated with large Black shares of the population.

Across Georgia, the blue shift towards Ossoff was biggest in counties with large Black populations.

Clayton County in south Atlanta, where over two-thirds of the population is Black, jumped from Ossoff +71 (Ossoff won 84% of the vote, Purdue won 13%) in November to Ossoff +77 (Ossoff won 88.5%, Purdue won 11.5%) in January – worth an additional 6,000 ballots alone.

Strong turnout from the Democratic party’s Black voters could be explained by the greater attention received during the runoff campaign by Warnock, who has been the senior pastor of a famous black church in Atlanta for the past 15 years and who now becomes Georgia’s first Black senator.

But it may also be the case that Black voters – nine in ten of whom vote Democrat in a state where Republicans won every presidential, senate and governor contest for nearly two decades – were energized by the possibility of casting a vote that could prove so impactful.

Turnout most resilient in central Atlanta, falls furthest in rural, pro-Trump areas

The vote swings in central Atlanta were more modest – Ossoff only improved his advantage in Fulton County and DeKalb County from +51 to +53.

However, turnout was particularly resilient in these counties, with just 6% fewer votes cast than in November. This meant that the two counties made up a larger share of the runoff electorate, which benefited Ossoff since around three in every four ballots in central Atlanta were cast for the Democratic party candidate.

Overall, the fact that turnout fell less in Fulton County and DeKalb County than the state average was worth an additional 20,000 votes for Ossoff.

In contrast, turnout fell furthest between November and January in rural areas where support for Purdue was strongest. In north-west Georgia, where Perdue received nearly four in every five votes, 13% fewer ballots were cast than during the general election.

Purdue marginally increased his share of the vote in rural Walker County, but because turnout fell by 17%, well above the state average, the change reduced Perdue’s state-wide lead by over 1,000 votes.

Small shifts add up to Ossoff victory

Perdue’s loss of 1,000 votes in Walker County may not seem significant, but it is emblematic of how Ossoff accomplished his comeback victory.

Between the 2016 and 2020 general elections, Georgia’s electoral landscape changed dramatically, with Atlanta’s suburbs shifting blue while Trump extended his advantage in rural areas. But moving between a general election and runoff we were never likely to see big vote swings or wild variations in turnout.

Instead, in seeking to overcome Purdue’s November advantage, the most Ossoff could hope for was little vote swings in most counties, and turnout to be slightly more resilient in urban areas than rural ones. That is exactly what happened – and these small shifts added up to one of the most significant senate results in recent America history.

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