On Tuesday, the Democrats won both the Georgia runoff elections and control of the US Senate. Democrat Raphael Warnock defeated Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler 50.8 percent to 49.2 percent In the special elections, Democrat Jon Ossoff defeated Republican David Perdue, whose tenure as Senator ended on Sunday, in the regular competition by 50.4 to 49.6 percent.
It’s hard to overstate how unprecedented this choice was. Until 2020, it was a political axiom that Democrats always fared worse than generally in runoff elections. Republicans had improved their margins in seven of the eight runoff elections in Georgian history. But this week, Ossoff and Warnock won, despite Republicans getting more votes than Democrats in both races in November.
|year||office||General margin||Drainage edge||Diff.|
|2020||US Senate||R + 1.8||D + 0.8||D + 2.6|
|2020||US Senate *||R + 1.0||D + 1.7||D + 2.7|
|2020||Public Service Commission||R + 2.9||R + 1.1||D + 1.8|
|2018||Foreign minister||R + 0.4||R + 3.8||R + 3.4|
|2018||Public Service Commission||R + 2.1||R + 3.5||R + 1.4|
|2008||US 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||US Senate||D + 1.6||R + 1.3||R + 2.9|
|1992||Public Service Commission||R + 0.7||R + 13.6||R + 12.9|
This may have been made possible by the fact that voter turnout deviated completely from the charts. Over 4.4 million people voted in Tuesday’s elections – more than double the number of those who voted in the 2008 Senate runoff election in Georgia, which was previously the runoff with the highest turnout in Georgian history. Full 60 percent of eligible voters (estimated by Michael McDonald of the University of Florida) cast a ballot – higher than the turnout of Georgia in the 2016 presidential election! It looks like the high stakes of the elections (it determined control of the Senate) and the enormous amount of money that was spent ($ 833 million between the two races) to choose really motivated people.
|Share of …|
|cycle||office||Drainage participation||Nov. voter turnout||Eligible voters|
|2020||US Senate *||4,444,832||90%||60%|
|2020||Public Service Commission||4,397,407||91||60|
|2008||Public Service Commission||2,010,329||56||32|
|2018||Public Service Commission||1,465,820||38||20th|
|1992||Public Service Commission||1,159,605||57||24|
|2006||Public Service Commission||215.092||11||4th|
|1998||Public Service Commission *||114,343||9||2|
In fact, the turnout was nearly 90 percent of that. That likely made the runoff look more like the general election electorate than a typical runoff, which could explain why the Democrats have gained rather than lost ground.
If we look at the results at the county level, we see some trends, the most important of which is that Warnock and Ossoff tended to improve Joe Biden’s margin in places with a high percentage of black voters. (To keep things simple, the following charts only show Ossoff, but Warnock’s results look almost identical.) This includes both suburban counties like Clayton in metropolitan Atlanta, where Warnock was 6 percentage points better than Biden, as well as rural counties like Randolph in the Georgian Black Belt. And turnout among black voters also seems to have increased: According to the Fox News Voter Analysis, Black Americans made up 32 percent of the runoff election, up from 29 percent in November. This corresponds to trends at the district level, which are also evident higher voter turnout in counties where a A larger part of the population is black.
At the same time, Warnock and Ossoff actually lagged slightly behind Biden in countries with a particularly high percentage of college-educated voters like Forsyth, where 52 percent of the population have a college degree but only 3 percent are black.
Obviously, it’s hard to know if these demographic relationships we’re seeing at the county level will hold up with voters across the state – we’ll only know that when we have more detailed voter data. But after suburbanites, especially white college graduates, were given the blue of the state in the presidential election, these charts suggest that elected Democratic senators owe their victories to black voters. It seems that split-ticket general election voters who voted Biden president but Republicans Senate and mostly concentrated in the affluent suburbs of Atlanta weren’t the key to Democratic victory after all.
The second trend that we can see at the county level is that the GOP voter turnout appears to have decreased. On the way to the election Party officials concerned that some Republicans could be deterred from voting because of Trump’s persistent false claims of election fraud that have now led to violence and rioting in the Capitol. Early and postal voting lagged behind in redder parts of the stateFor example, and while Republicans were hoping turnout would make up for that electoral deficit – GOP voters generally voted less by mail or in early-voting venues – their fears seem somewhat realized. As the graph below shows, the better Trump was doing in a county in November, the more voter turnout fell compared to the general election.
However, we should be careful not to overstate the extent of Trump’s claims discouraged Republican participation. After all, there were still plenty of Republicans showing up to vote – enough to set a record for voter turnout. But the turnout was critical straight somewhat higher in democratic areas of the state. So the result is that while Trump’s approach has encouraged many Republicans to vote, it has likely also pushed many Democrats to vote.
Of course, there are two other factors here that are a little more difficult to unravel. First, some Republican voters may have been harder to motivate than they were in November because Trump himself didn’t vote – after all, the runoffs reflected other out-of-cycle elections, such as the 2017 Alabama Senate special or the 2018 midterm elections, where the turnout the Republicans had declined and the Democrats exceeded their most recent presidential benchmark. Additionally, the fact that Trump’s approval rating has dropped since November has likely hurt the GOP as well. (In context, Trump’s approval rating in November 2018, when the Democrats won back the House of Representatives, was roughly the same as it is now – in the low 40s.)
Whether democrats can gain a foothold in Georgia is another question. Trump’s unpopularity has likely contributed to a democratic national environment that, for example, may not last in 2022 when Warnock is required to serve a full six-year term. And according to the President’s findings, Georgia is still a slightly republican state (Biden won the state by 0.3 points, but he won the national referendum by 4.4 points, so Georgia remains more republican than the whole country). Tuesday’s results are certainly promising for Democrats hoping to turn Georgia into the next Virginia – a former Republican southern state that has gone consistently blue with demographic change – but nothing is guaranteed.