The Warnock and Ossoff Georgia Election Win By The Numbers
FiveThirtyEight documents how Democrats Warnock and Ossoff won both Georgia runoff elections — and control of the U.S. Senate. Democrat Raphael Warnock defeated Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler 50.8 percent to 49.2 percent in the special election, and Democrat Jon Ossoff defeated Republican David Perdue, whose term as senator expired on Sunday, 50.4 percent to 49.6 percent in the regularly scheduled contest.
Over 4.4 million people voted in the election — more than double the number who voted in Georgia’s 2008 Senate runoff, which was previously the highest-turnout runoff in Georgia history. A full 60 percent of eligible voters (as estimated by Michael McDonald of the University of Florida) cast a ballot — higher than Georgia’s turnout rate in the 2016 presidential election! It looks like the high stakes of the election (it determined control of the Senate) and the massive amount of money spent ($833 million between the two races) really motivated people to vote.
Warnock and Ossoff Compared to Biden’s Performance
Warnock and Ossoff both tended to improve on Joe Biden’s margin in places with a large share of Black voters. This includes both suburban counties like Clayton, in the Atlanta metropolitan area, where Warnock did 6 percentage points better than Biden, as well as more rural counties like Randolph, in Georgia’s Black Belt. And turnout among Black voters seems to have been up, as well: According to the Fox News Voter Analysis, Black Americans made up 32 percent of the runoff electorate, up from 29 percent in November. This corresponds with trends at the county level, which also show higher turnout in counties where a larger share of the population is Black.
College Educated Voters
Warnock and Ossoff actually slightly underperformed Biden in counties with a particularly high share of college-educated voters, such as Forsyth, where 52 percent of the population has a college degree but only 3 percent is Black. after suburbanites, especially white college-educated ones, were credited with swinging the state blue in the presidential election, these charts suggest that the Democratic senators-elect owe their wins to Black voters. It seems that split-ticket voters from the general election — who voted Biden for president but Republicans for the Senate, and who were largely concentrated in the wealthy Atlanta suburbs — were not key to the Democratic victory after all.
GOP turnout seems to have been down. Headed into the election, party officials worried that some Republicans might be discouraged from voting due to Trump’s continued false claims of election fraud that have now resulted in violence and insurrection at the Capitol. Early and absentee voting lagged in redder parts of the state, for instance, and while Republicans hoped Election Day turnout would make up for this deficit — GOP voters were generally less likely to vote by mail or at early-voting locations — it seems their fears were somewhat realized. The better Trump did in a county in November, the more its turnout tended to drop in the runoffs compared to the general election.
Plenty of Republicans still showed up to vote — enough to help set a record for runoff turnout. But critically, turnout tended to be just a bit higher in more Democratic-leaning areas of the state. So the upshot is that while Trump’s approach may have encouraged plenty of Republicans to vote, he probably pushed plenty of Democrats to go to the polls, too.
Of course, there are two other factors here that are a bit harder to untangle. First, some Republican voters may have been harder to motivate than they were in November because Trump himself wasn’t on the ballot — after all, the runoffs mirrored other off-cycle elections, like the 2017 Alabama Senate special election or the 2018 midterms, where Republican voter turnout was down and the Democrats outperformed their recent presidential benchmark. Additionally, the fact that Trump’s approval rating has slipped since November probably hurt the GOP, too. (For context, Trump’s approval rating in November 2018, when Democrats won back the House of Representatives, was roughly the same as it now — in the low 40s.)
The Parties and Voters: 2016 to 2020
Jim Geraghty of National Review recalled that back in July 2016, Chuck Schumer could see that in Trump, the Republican Party had a nominee who had much more appeal among blue-collar whites than usual and much less appeal among suburbanites than usual. Schumer was convinced this was a good trade: “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.” That was the key miscalculation of the 2016 cycle.
But by 2018, that trade didn’t look as good for Republicans, as they lost control of the House; 38 of the 41 congressional seats that flipped from red to blue were suburban. Trump’s blue-collar voters just didn’t turn out as much in those midterms. Those blue-collar Trump voters didn’t show up in the numbers that Republicans needed in gubernatorial or senatorial races in Wisconsin and Michigan.
In 2020 . . . that trade-off worked somewhat better for Republicans, but not quite good enough. It’s important to note that Republicans won back a bunch of suburban congressional seats, driven in large part by candidates who were women, minorities, veterans, or some combination of those: Michelle Steel, Young Kim, Carlos Giminez, Maria Elvira Salazar, and Burgess Owens.
You know what suburban voters do? They show up and vote. Year in, year out, presidential years, midterms, off-year elections, special elections, non-November local elections. They must rank among the most easily overlooked, underrated, and underappreciated voters, those allegedly wishy-washy, milquetoast, not-fond-of-Trump, minivan-driving moderate suburban soccer moms and white-collar dads. They’re not exciting. They’re rarely looking for anything revolutionary. They’re not looking to “burn it all down”; they’re the ones who built the things that would get burned down.
You know why it makes sense for a political party to target its messaging and appeal to this voter demographic? Because you don’t have to do much to get them to the polls. They do it out of habit and civic duty. As John Bragg put it last night: “They always vote, just like they always file their taxes, pay their bills, mow their lawns, send their kids to college. The question is, which party appeals to those people in 2020?”
Do the Warnock and Ossoff Victories Portend The Future of Georgia Politics?
Jim Geraghty notes how Georgia was a state where Republicans had won every Senate election since 2002 — and the winner in the state’s 1998 Senate race was Democrat Zell Miller, who by the end of his term was giving the keynote address at the Republican National Convention. Republicans won every gubernatorial race in Georgia since 1998, despite what Stacey Abrams claims. In Georgia, Republicans won every lieutenant gubernatorial race since 2004, every secretary of state race since 2002, and every state attorney general race since 2006. Heading into the 2020 cycle, Republicans had won the presidential elections in Georgia in eight of the past nine cycles.
In 2014, the last major midterm election before Donald Trump descended the escalator and ran for president, Republicans won the gubernatorial election by more than 200,000 votes, and the lieutenant governor’s race and the down-ticket races by margins close to or exceeding 400,000 votes, while Perdue won the Senate race by more than 197,000 votes. In other words, up until very recently, Georgia was a really, really Republican-leaning state.
Whether Democrats can keep their foothold in Georgia is another question. Trump’s unpopularity likely contributed to a Democratic-leaning national environment that may not hold in, say, 2022, when Warnock will have to run for a full six-year term. And according to the presidential results, Georgia is still a slightly Republican-leaning state (Biden won the state by 0.3 points, but he won the national popular vote by 4.4 points, so Georgia remains more Republican than the country as a whole). Tuesday’s results certainly hold promise for Democrats hoping to turn Georgia into the next Virginia — a formerly Republican Southern state turned solidly blue by demographic change — but nothing is guaranteed.