Could the January 5 Senate runoff be a turning point in Georgia’s rural-urban political struggle?
(12/22 Note: As of this morning, the website georgiavotes.com has reported a little more than 200,000 new votes over and above those used in the post below, but not much changes. The turnout advantage for the 28 Democratic counties that sided with Ossoff in the general election shrunk to 1.1 percentage points from the 1.3-point margin we found in yesterday’s analysis, and the hypothetical Democratic vote advantage, based on county-level vote shares from the general election, dropped from about 25,000 to about 22,000.)
This is one of those posts where it’s important to begin with the caveats. I’m probably going to use up what’s left of my lifetime supply of ifs, buts and maybes in this one piece. I offer it as a good-faith effort to make sense of the early-voting data that is now publicly available, but nobody should rush to call their bookie and place any bets.
That said, let’s get on with this year’s favorite political parlor game: trying to sort out who will win Georgia’s twin runoff elections for the U.S. Senate on January 5, 2021 — incumbent Republicans David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler or Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock.
These races will tell us a lot about the future of Georgia’s rural-urban political divide. Until this year — pretty much since the dawn of time — rural interests and voters have held sway in Georgia politics, whether under Democrats or Republicans. After more than a century of Democratic rule, Republicans in the last 20 years have clawed their way to power at every level of government, from county courthouses to the state capitol to Congress. Initially, their base was heavily suburban and even urban.
But since then, Republicans have come to rely most heavily on rural voters while Democrats have taken control of the state’s major cities and pushed into the suburbs. In the 2020 General Election, Perdue carried 131 rural counties while Ossoff led in the other 28, which included all the state’s densely-populated urban and suburban counties and a smattering of rural counties with significant Black populations.
This stark urban-rural divide has been developing and firming up over several election cycles, with maybe one or two counties sliding back and forth. It held true in the 2016 presidential election, the 2018 gubernatorial race and now the 2020 presidential and senate elections. But 2020 has long been forecast as the year when the demographic tide would finally overwhelm Republicans, and it’s starting to look like that might be the case.
Based on various chunks of data pulled this morning from the websites of the Georgia Secretary of State (SOS) georgiavotes.com (which scrapes data from the SOS site and organizes it into easier-to-use county-level views), several observations are possible.
The first is that significantly more new voters were registered in the 28 Democratic counties than in the 131 GOP counties since the general election, according to the SOS and georgiavotes.com data. The total number of registered voters increased by a total 255,704 between the general election and the close of registration for the runoffs; of those, 152,859 were registered in the Democratic counties versus 102,845 in the GOP counties — an advantage of 50,000 on Democratic turf. That puts the total number of registered voters in the Democratic counties at 4.07 million versus 3.42 million in the Republican counties, basically a 54-to-46 percent split.
Second, the 28 Democratic counties are currently outvoting the Republican counties. This represents the reversal (perhaps temporary) of what has been a significant GOP advantage — voter turnout. Traditionally, Republicans have been able to turn out their rural voters by a margin of two or three percentage points more than voters in the Democratic counties.
As of this morning’s georgiavotes.com report, however, turnout in the Ossoff counties stood at 20.2 percent versus 18.9 percent for the Perdue counties. This shift occurred over the weekend; as of the most recent previous report on Friday, the Perdue counties still had about a half-point advantage in turnout. And this trend could of course flip again. Today’s new numbers reflected votes that were logged primarily in the Ossoff counties, and the next report may come from the rural GOP counties that went heavily for Perdue.
That said, the third observation is that a lot more mail ballots have been requested in the Ossoff counties, and there are still a lot more outstanding. This table summarizes the key numbers pulled from this morning’s report at georgiavotes.com.
Of course, just because a new voter was registered in a Democratic county or a mail ballot was requested there, that doesn’t mean it will go for Ossoff or his partner on the Democratic ticket, Warnock. But the sheer numerical differences make it difficult (at least for your humble scribe here at TIGC) to interpret them in ways that auger well for Perdue or Loeffler.
That said, Republican voters historically favor election-day voting, which leaves the door open for a strong finish by the two incumbents, and it could be that Republican efforts to pump up their mail vote are succeeding, perhaps especially in the suburbs.
So what does all this mean in terms of a forecast?
Well, if — big, huge, bold-faced, all-caps, underlined IF — the county-level vote shares from the general election hold true in the runoff, Ossoff and Warnock are probably ahead of Perdue and Loeffler by about 25,000 votes based on the votes that have already been cast. If — and, again, another massive, bold-faced, all-caps IF — all the outstanding mail ballots are indeed returned and the same county-level vote splits hold, the Democratic advantage would swell to roughly 90,000 votes.
But that doesn’t include the additional in-person votes that will be cast both early and on January 5, and it shouldn’t be read as a forecast or a prediction. I started fiddling with this post on Saturday; if I had finished it then, based on Friday’s data, I would have reported that the Republicans were probably ahead by about 8,000 votes, and it may well shift back as rural counties update their early-vote totals in the days ahead.
This analysis also doesn’t solve the political riddle presented to Ossoff (and potentially Warnock) by the general election results — the fact that Ossoff got nearly 100,000 fewer votes than his party’s presidential nominee, Joe Biden, who, of course, flipped Georgia blue for the first time since 1992. Conventional wisdom then and now held that traditionally Republican suburban voters who had turned against President Trump still wanted a legislative check on any Democrat in the White House, and none of the foregoing analysis should be read as contradicting that assessment.
Further, while Black voters currently constitute more than 30 percent of the early vote to date (according to georgiavotes.com), voter turnout is still lagging in heavily Black counties that are vital to Democratic fortunes, including Bibb (Macon) at 18.8 percent, Chatham (Savannah) at 13.9, Clayton (South Metro Atlanta) at 18.9, Dougherty (Albany) at 13.3, Muscogee (Columbus) at 16.2, and Richmond (Augusta) at 15.0.
But Georgia’s Republicans are also having to navigate some muddy political waters. Chief among the GOP’s problems is what may be a split between the party’s suburban supporters and President Trump’s red-capped MAGA base in rural Georgia, which routinely gave him margins of more than 70 and 80 percent in 2016 and again in 2020. If the suburban voters might be inclined to stand with the party’s incumbent senators, rural voters may be so discouraged by Trump’s continuing claims of voter fraud that some of them may stay home. Or so party leaders are widely reported to fear.
If the two parties have any kind of home-field advantage in the counties they carried, it seems likely that Georgia’s Democrats have really muscled up in some key foundational areas: voter registration, mail-in voting and turnout. Right now, they seem to have an advantage in all three areas. If they can sustain it, January 5 may be a tough day for Georgia Republicans, and a pivot point in the state’s rural-urban political struggle.
Watch this space. We’ll update this analysis as more numbers roll in.
(c) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2021