The Georgia Runoffs -- How do Democrats win?

If you are unfamiliar with the concept of elasticity, please refer to my piece here for more context.

The battle for the Presidency may be over, but the battle for the Senate is, in some senses, just beginning, with two January special elections in Georgia scheduled to decide control of the chamber.

Ordinarily, special elections have tended to be dominated by suburban voters, who vote at a higher propensity and therefore comprise a greater share of the electorate in non-presidential elections. This has generally led to such races having a Republican bias; however, with the recent political realignment witnessed in America, such an assumption is no longer safe. Nowhere is this more true than in Georgia, where Joe Biden became the first Democrat to carry the state since 1992, winning on the back of overwhelming dominance in the Atlanta metro and suburban area. To better examine the state of the runoffs and the key areas in which Ossoff and Warnock may need to focus on to climb to victory, we will analyze the state elasticity from 2016-2020.

Georgia Elasticity (with turnout)

The Republican sprint to the right in the wake of the general election will likely help Democrats consolidate support in the suburban counties of Gwinnett (E 75.0) and Cobb (E 77.7), and may further chip away at Republican support in exurban areas like Forsyth (E 89.4), Douglas (E 63.6), and Paulding (E 70.5). However, the high elasticity of the urban-suburban coalition in the Atlanta metro area may make it a bit of a dicey bet to rely on in the upcoming special election -- indeed, Democrats may look at the high elasticity of these counties and be either alarmed at potential room to fall or gladdened by potential room for growth. 

Which one of the scenarios listed is more likely to occur? Ordinarily, one would expect the special election to have cautious moderates not entirely sold on giving Democrats a trifecta in the government. However, with the recent shift in Republican strategy that now seems geared to turn out the base, with Loeffler and Perdue embracing conspiratorial theories and calling on the Republican Secretary of State to resign, Democrats will likely have an easier time holding the suburban margins that Biden so heavily relied on and may even grow their margins if they play their cards right. However, relying so heavily on highly elastic areas gives a strategy with high variance, and in order to maximize their chances of winning, Democrats must look to shore up their bases in other areas of the state.

Fortunately for Democrats, there is room for growth in two key areas of the state outside the Atlanta metro area, and it is to be found in Savannah (Chatham County) and Columbus (Muscogee County). Both counties see their elasticity spike with turnout incorporated into it -- Chatham sees its elasticity go from 40.4 without turnout to 62.1 with turnout, and Muscogee sees a jump from 36.7 to 52.5. What this indicates is highly variable turnout that, when properly amplified, can provide a candidate with the critical extra votes needed in close races. Democratic base turnout in these areas will be key to Ossoff and Warnock's chances, and with both counties being over 40% Black, a proper campaign focus on turning out Black voters in these areas can both provide a strong safety net against suburban margins dipping and create extra lanes to victory for statewide Democrats.

If Ossoff and Warnock are to win these runoffs, however, they may also want to cut some of the margins in Republican base counties outside the Atlanta metro area. To identify these areas, we will change our strategy a bit -- up until now, we have examined the elasticity of areas under the combined lenses of turnout and vote variation to provide us with a picture on areas where the candidates can grow their vote totals. However, if we only want to examine areas in which they can swing voters away from them instead of also turning out low-propensity voters, we should use an elasticity map that does not account for turnout -- this map only computes elasticity based on the margin variation between elections, as discussed here. In doing so, we can isolate counties that have seen strong shifts in party vote share, which better indicates a high proportion of pure swing voters.

Georgia Elasticity (without turnout)

A stark picture is painted by the map above, which shows an elastic Democratic voter base consisting of recently-swung suburbanites in the Atlanta metro area pitted against an inelastic Republican voter base. The difference between the turnout map (in which Georgia looks elastic) and the non-turnout map (in which it looks very inelastic) shows us one key thing: that the Republican base does not have many swing voters and that their chances of victory rely entirely on turnout from the base, which has actually varied a bit more than they would have liked in recent years.

However, one key base Republican county is quite populous and moderately elastic, with plenty of swing voters: Columbia (E 70.1 with turnout, E 43.6 without), one of the fastest-growing counties in the United States. Columbia is already one of the most elastic counties in the state, even before factoring in turnout, and we are currently witnessing a steady erosion of Republican support in this area. In 2012, Romney won it 70-28, but Trump won this county 66-29 in 2016 and saw his margins dip to 62-36 in 2020. Worryingly for Ossoff, however, Perdue won it in the general election 65-33, and the Democratic candidate will need to perform a lot closer to Biden's margins if he is to carry the state. However, given the elasticity of this area, a concerted effort in this often-neglected area could do a world of good for Democrats and further chip away at a key and reliably Republican base of support. If Democrats can hold Republicans to 62% in Columbia, they're likely well on their way to winning statewide.

Houston County (E 59.4 with turnout scaling, E 38.3 without) is another similar Republican base county that has seen similar erosions of support among the GOP base; in fact, Biden lost this county by 12 points just four years after Clinton lost it by 21. If Warnock and Ossoff can make inroads in this county, which is 29% Black and has a large pool of untapped voters, Democratic statewide chances would be boosted significantly. 

The 2020 Georgia Senate special elections will likely have the fate of a nation in its hands, as they will decide control of the upper chamber for the next two years. Given this, both parties will try to turn out their bases in record numbers, but if Democrats want to win, they'll want to expand their victory routes beyond just carrying the Atlanta metro. Areas like Columbia, Houston, Chatham, and Muscogee will thus be part of the key secondary paths needed to help take them to a Senate majority.

Ratings: Tossup (Ossoff/Perdue), Tilt Democratic (Warnock/Loeffler)

A special thanks to Eli Heyman (@Elium2) for his help with analyzing this state.


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