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GOP Likely Needs a Big Georgia Turnout Today

Dear Readers: With a new president about to take office and a sharply divided Congress, what should we expect of the high-stakes political road ahead? Kick off the new year with a “ripped from the headlines” presentation by University of Virginia Center for Politics Director Larry J. Sabato and an all-star guest lineup featuring former U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI); former Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA); and many others for a two-hour discussion of the major political news of the day. All alumni, parents, friends, and students are invited to join Larry Sabato, who will be streaming live from the Rotunda from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 6.

To view the program live on Wednesday, sign up at Eventbrite. We also will be posting the event as a Sabato’s Crystal Ball webinar — look for it on our YouTube channel, UVACFP, and as a podcast at major podcast providers on Thursday.

This is the inaugural event in the Democracy Dialogues series sponsored by UVA President Jim Ryan, the Institute of Democracy, and the Center for Politics.

— The Editors

Georgia races remain Toss-ups

With Election Day voting underway in the crucial Senate runoffs in Georgia, we continue to see both races as Toss-ups. But after an early-voting period where Democrats may have performed better than they did in the lead-up to the November election, Republicans may need to follow suit with an impressive day-of-election performance to defend Sens. David Perdue (R-GA) and Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) against challengers Jon Ossoff (D) and Raphael Warnock (D), respectively.

Georgians have cast roughly 3 million votes so far in the contest through early in-person and mail-in voting. Even without accounting for any Election Day votes, this is an impressive turnout, about 60% of the roughly 5 million votes cast in Georgia’s high-turnout November election.

The last time Georgia had a Senate runoff, in 2008, only 2.1 million votes were cast compared to 3.9 million votes cast for president in the general election. So a dozen years ago, turnout in the runoff was just a little more than half that of the general election, and then-Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) won the runoff by 15 points after leading in the November vote by just three points.

The turnout in these runoffs as a percentage of the general election vote is going to be markedly higher than in 2008. The key question is how much higher.

The votes cast before Election Day in these Senate runoffs may be more Democratic leaning than those cast before the November general election. Perhaps the most encouraging data point for Democrats is that the Black voter share of the pre-Election Day vote is up a few points from the pre-Election Day Black vote in the general election. Given that Black voters overwhelmingly support Democrats, any increase in the Black share of the electorate is very important.

Democrats probably need a better electorate in the runoff than they got in November, because even though Biden narrowly won, Perdue ran a little under two points ahead of Ossoff in his election, and the combined Republican vote outpaced the combined Democratic vote in the jungle primary special election by about a point. In other words, if the two Senate elections held in November had been conventional contests with a single Democrat facing a single Republican with no runoff, Perdue would have been reelected and a Republican very well could have won the other race, too.

In the general election, about 80% of all votes were cast before Election Day. Joe Biden won this chunk of votes by about six points. Donald Trump won the Election Day votes by 23 points, which got him within a few tenths of a percentage point of winning, but he fell short. If Democrats have done better in the pre-Election Day vote this time, then Republicans either need to win the Election Day vote by more than Trump did, or have the Election Day electorate make up a bigger share of the total votes cast (and still vote heavily Republican).

Could this happen? Sure. It may be that some Republicans who voted before Election Day in the general election will switch to day-of voting this time, perhaps in response to President Trump’s endless and unfounded complaints about the integrity of the Georgia election — complaints he reiterated in an Election Eve Georgia rally last night. More broadly, the voting patterns and methods of a post-holiday runoff may be different than those of a general election.

This may be an oversimplification, but our sense is that if total turnout runs north of 4 million, and particularly if it’s clearly more than 4 million, the Republicans probably are getting a large enough Election Day turnout to win. If turnout runs south of 4 million, the Democrats may be in good shape given their likely advantage in the votes already cast, which constitute a healthy chunk of the eventual total. Our uncertainty about what the turnout ultimately will be is why we’ve decided to keep both races as Toss-ups.

Polling hasn’t provided much clarity beyond reinforcing a Toss-up rating: Democrats have led more often than Republicans, but often only by a little, with some polls showing a dead tie. Much has been made of how the president’s efforts to question the legitimacy of the election will affect the behavior of Republican voters in the runoff. Will his complaints motivate Republicans to show up on Election Day, powering Republicans to victory and saving the GOP Senate majority? Or will they depress Republican turnout, either because a crucial number of GOP voters will believe that their votes don’t matter or because the president’s outrageous behavior — as once again demonstrated in a weekend phone call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) — has turned off even some of his own electorate or pushed some cross-pressured voters to the Democrats. This, too, is a question mark, and it may have bearing on future Republican behavior. If Republicans lose the runoffs, and with them the Senate, it may push Republican leaders to distance themselves from the outgoing president and his rhetoric. If Republicans hold the seats and generate a high turnout, the lesson for Republicans may be that the president’s rage is a powerful electoral motivator even when he isn’t on the ballot himself.

Remember, Democrats need to sweep both races to forge a 50-50 Senate that they would control through Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ (D) tiebreaking vote. Holding just one of the seats would be good enough for Republicans to retain a 51-49 majority (or 52-48 if they hold both). We do expect both races to break toward the same party, although there could be a split decision if both races are very close.

For more on the Senate runoffs, check out our detailed preview from right before the holiday break. We plan to react to the results whenever we get a good sense as to who the winners are — that could be as soon as Wednesday, or it could drag on for days if one or both races are very close.