By Jim Ellis
June 15, 2017 — The long Georgia special election cycle is mercifully almost over, as this most expensive-ever congressional race draws to a close next Tuesday. Looking at the aggregate spending, this one House campaign will easily exceed $40 million in combined expenditures, probably topping $25 million for Democrat Jon Ossoff’s campaign committee alone when the financial books close at the reporting cycle’s end.
The polls have forecast a close race between Ossoff and former Secretary of State Karen Handel (R) immediately upon both advancing from the April 18 jungle primary. The most recent study, from Survey USA polling for WXIA-TV in Atlanta (June 7-11, 700 registered GA-6 voters; 503 either likely June 20 participants or those who have voted early), finds the two again tied at 47 percent. This is a marked improvement for Handel in comparison to both S-USA’s previous poll and last week’s Abt Associates survey for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, both of which found Ossoff holding a 51-44 percent advantage.
All three of these polls, however, are apparently understating Republican strength. In party segmentation, the GOP/lean GOP cell has only small advantages over the Democrat/Lean Democrat grouping. This is largely due to over-emphasizing the close 2016 presidential race when constructing the respondent pool. Since Georgia does not register voters by political party affiliation, it becomes more difficult to determine an accurate party sample for polling purposes.
Historically, the 6th District has been much more Republican than Donald Trump’s 46.8-48.3 percent victory margin over Hillary Clinton last November reflects. Reviewing the actual voter history, Mitt Romney carried the same district with a 60.8 percent vote total, and former Rep. Tom Price (R-Roswell) averaged 76.1 percent over his seven terms representing the district. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R) held the seat for three terms before Price, and he succeeded former Speaker Newt Gingrich who, at the end of his congressional tenure, represented part of this northern Georgia region but in a different configuration.
It does appear that this race is virtually even: a major step forward for Democrats in a seat that has proven reliably Republican, and resiliency for the GOP as Handel has come storming back after posting only a 20 percent showing in the primary. In the simplest of terms, whichever campaign and party best identifies and gets their voters to the polls will win the race.
The conventional wisdom is that the turnout mechanism should favor Ossoff and the Democrats because he has the greater presence in terms of media and grassroots. But, the Republicans have the greater numbers and, despite the news coverage highlighting Ossoff’s 48 percent performance in the primary as a near victory, the combined Republican vote in that election still reached 51 percent.
The latest polling indicates strong party loyalty for both candidates: 97 percent Democrat for Ossoff, 91 percent Republican support for Handel with the latter contender carrying the Independents by four percentage points. There is a pronounced age and gender gap, however. Men are supporting Handel, 57-34 percent, while women back Ossoff, 58-39 percent. Younger voters (aged 18-34) favor Ossoff, 61-37 percent, while the oldest (65-plus) support Handel by an almost identical 61-36 percent split. But, age is a key turnout factor, with the oldest voters traditionally having the best participation rate.
Each party will significantly suffer if they lose this special election. Republicans will be cast as failures because they will have dropped a reliable seat, while Democrats will take a major hit because the expectation level has risen to such an exaggerated point that victory is actually anticipated.
Official turnout for the special jungle primary election was 193,981 voters, a stunning total for a southern special election. To put this participation rate into perspective, the turnout for the last mid-term election here was 210,504. The early vote exceeded 55,000 ballots in the special primary, and the latest pre-runoff election report finds that the early vote total has already exceeded 102,000.
In the primary, Ossoff fared extremely well in early voting. Georgia reports the early tallies first, and his original vote total was 71 percent. This number then dwindled to 48 percent when all of the votes were counted, thus showing how dominant he was in early voting, but also how he fell way back on E-Day itself.