What Happens If Georgia’s Senate Race Goes To A Runoff — Again?

What Happens If Georgia’s Senate Race Goes To A Runoff — Again?

As recently as a few weeks ago, the Georgia Senate race seemed to be tipping toward incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock. A string of controversies plagued the Republican candidate, Herschel Walker, and in mid-October, our polling average gave Warnock a 3- to 4-percentage-point edge over his opponent. Around the same time, FiveThirtyEight’s Deluxe forecast put Warnock at an almost 6-in-10 chance of getting reelected.

But the dynamics of the race are different now. Sure, Walker is still dogged by allegations, which he denies, that he encouraged and/or paid for multiple women to terminate their pregnancies, despite once campaigning on a platform that includes a total ban on abortions. (In recent weeks, Walker’s anti-abortion stance has softened somewhat. He now says he agrees with a state law banning the procedure after six weeks, with exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother.) But Warnock’s lead over his Republican rival has slimmed to just over 1 point in FiveThirtyEight’s polling average.5 Meanwhile, national Republicans have closed ranks around Walker, despite these accusations and numerous others levied against him. After the first abortion allegation but before the second, Sens. Rick Scott of Florida and Tom Cotton of Arkansas traveled to the Peach State to join Walker on the campaign trail.

Now, according to our forecast, the race is considered a toss-up. Specifically, Walker now has a 55-in-100 chance of winning, and Warnock has a 45-in-100 chance of winning. And our forecast’s projection for the popular vote is razor-thin: 49.3 percent for Walker, 49.2 percent for Warnock and 1.6 percent for Libertarian candidate Chase Oliver

So Walker wins by the narrowest of margins … right? Not so fast. As it turns out, 49.3 percent of the vote wouldn’t be enough for him to win outright. Georgia law mandates that candidates must receive a majority of the vote in order to win an election; if no one does so, the top-two finishers advance to a runoff election on Dec. 6. Oliver’s presence on the ballot complicates things because he could, theoretically, siphon votes from both candidates and prevent Walker or Warnock from reaching the 50 percent threshold required to win on the first ballot. And with the tightening of the race, it’s looking increasingly likely that the Georgia Senate race will head to a runoff — again. That could give Walker or Warnock a second chance to win.

So what can we expect if Walker and Warnock go head-to-head in December? Well, conditions likely won’t look as rosy for Democrats as they did in January 2021, when Warnock and Georgia Sen. Jon Ossoff both narrowly defeated their Republican rivals, former Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, respectively, in their runoff races. In fact, our Deluxe forecast estimates that, if this race were to go to a runoff, Walker would win about 68 percent of the time.

Before 2020, the GOP usually gained ground in Georgia runoffs

Shift in vote margin and percentage change in turnout from the general election to the runoff for statewide races in Georgia, 1992-2020

Year Office General Margin Runoff Margin Diff.
2020 U.S. Senate R+1.8 D+1.2 D+3.0
2020 U.S. Senate* R+1.0 D+2.1 D+3.1
2020 Public Service Commission R+2.9 R+0.8 D+2.2
2018 Secretary of State R+0.4 R+3.8 R+3.4
2018 Public Service Commission R+2.1 R+3.5 R+1.4
2008 U.S. Senate R+2.9 R+14.9 R+12.0
2008 Public Service Commission D+0.6 R+13.0 R+13.7
2006 Public Service Commission D+2.6 R+4.4 R+7.0
1998 Public Service Commission* D+15.8 D+31.4 D+15.6
1992 U.S. Senate D+1.6 R+1.3 R+2.9
1992 Public Service Commission R+0.7 R+13.6 R+12.9

*Special election

Georgia rules require a candidate to win a majority of the vote in general elections or special elections; if no candidate wins a majority, there is a runoff between the top-two finishers. If a special election took place on a regular general election date, it is included in this table. In these cases, there may be multiple candidates from each party running, so the Democratic and Republican totals are the combined vote share of all candidates from that party.

Sources: Georgia Secretary of State

That could be the case because, as the chart above shows, Georgia runoffs have typically favored Republicans. Since the late 1960s, Georgia has seen 11 runoffs between a Democrat and a Republican for statewide office, and the runoff margin was better for Republicans than the general-election margin in seven of them. This is largely attributable to the drop-off in turnout — fewer people vote in runoff races than in general elections — and the decline usually disproportionately affects Democrats. “In runoff elections, the question is, ‘Who can get their people back to vote?’ And Republicans have historically had more success with that,” said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.

This was no accident, either: The runoff law has racist roots. Voting is highly polarized by race in Georgia, which means that white voters tend to support Republican candidates and Black voters overwhelmingly support Democrats. The runoff system was created in the 1960s as a way of preserving white political power in a heavily Black state while undermining the political clout of Black lawmakers who could win more easily in a multicandidate race with a plurality of the vote, according to an Interior Department report.

But that’s not what happened in the 2021 runoff. That year, Black turnout stayed high, while whiter and more rural precincts saw a smaller share of voters at the polls. Warnock and Ossoff also improved on President Biden’s margins, particularly in counties with the largest shares of Black voters. As a result, Georgia elected its first Black senator.

In 2021, though, there were a number of factors working in Democrats’ favor. Democrats worked diligently to encourage their voters to turn out to the polls. The fact that the runoffs were going to decide which party controlled the Senate also generated a lot of interest in the campaign (at least $500 million worth!) and ensured that turnout would be high. Plus, then-President Donald Trump actively discouraged Republicans from trusting the state’s electoral system, which dissuaded many Republicans from returning to the ballot box.

“The change in 2021 can, in part, be attributed to the fact that Democrats were helped by Republicans,” Bullock said. On top of that, he added, prominent conservatives were discouraging GOP voters from supporting both Loeffler and Perdue on the grounds that neither was reportedly doing enough to support Trump. “Some Republicans believed them, too,” Bullock said. “So it’s not so much that the two Democrats — Warnock and Ossoff — won, but that Republicans lost.”

This year, however, things are looking better for Republicans. For one, the party is working a lot harder at voter mobilization than it did two years ago; the midterm environment favors the GOP more so than it did in 2020, too, despite Walker’s flaws as a candidate. And the Peach State still leans red, giving Republicans an additional boost.

“Herschel Walker has got more skeletons than he’s got closets to hide them in. And if you’re looking for a reason to vote against Herschel, the reasons are out there,” Bullock said. “But Republican [voters] might have no problems overlooking his behavior if it means that Republicans can win control of the Senate.”

To be clear, the Senate isn’t all we’re watching in the Peach State. While we’ll also keep an eye on the gubernatorial rematch between Gov. Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams, our Deluxe forecast predicts that Kemp has more than a 9-in-10 chance of being reelected, so it’s unlikely this race will be as tight. In that sense, Warnock may be overperforming given the headwinds against Democrats this year. “At least maybe in a midterm year — especially one with a Democratic president and high inflation rates — you’d probably rather be a Republican running in Georgia than a Democrat,” Bullock said. 

That said, the Senate race was probably always going to be competitive since the outcome could determine which party controls the upper chamber — giving voters an extra reason to turn out. We’ll find out soon how much those stakes motivate both party’s voters. And in the meantime, us election-watchers will keep our calendars open for December. If a runoff were to happen this year, early voting would start Nov. 14 — a mere week after Election Day. 

Nathaniel Rakich contributed research.

CLARIFICATION (Nov. 3, 2022, 10:05 a.m.): A previous version of this story suggested that if neither Warnock nor Walker got the most votes, they would have a second chance to win. This phrasing suggested that the third-party candidate in the race would get the most votes, which is extremely unlikely. It is more a matter of whether Warnock or Walker gets a majority of the overall vote.

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