Georgia -- Runoff Realignments (By Evan Scrimshaw)
(We're once again pleased to have Evan Scrimshaw (@EScrimshaw) write this column today for us as a guest writer. Evan has years of experience with global election forecasting and is an expert on Australian, American, British, Irish, Scottish, and Canadian electoral politics. We're excited to feature his work here.)
"I remember when
I remember, I remember when I lost my mind
But it wasn't because I didn't know enough
I just knew too much"
For weeks now, the conventional wisdom has been that Democrats are in trouble in Georgia, because Jon Ossoff underran Joe Biden, or something - I can't really pretend I was paying that close attention to the argument. It was a risible argument because runoffs and general elections are entirely different beasts, and yet, here we were.
I remember going through the county data from the last time there was a runoff for the Senate in Georgia - the 2008 race - and seeing that there was a clear pattern of the Metro - and specifically, Cobb and DeKalb - providing more of the total votes than in the general election. Both counties totaled about a half % more of the statewide vote in the runoff, at the expense of south and central Georgia - especially the counties along the Georgia/Florida border. Turnout is almost assuredly going to fall, and Georgia's recent turnout surge has been in those rural, white counties - the share of the electorate that was white, and without a degree, in Georgia was up from 30% to 36% in four years, from 2016 to 2020. If those voters - you could say that they were Trump voters - didn't turn out, then the GOP would lose.
I remember the New York Times analysis that the state that Joe Biden won in November was only 27% Black, and that the share of the electorate that was Black in both 2014 and 2018 was higher than in either 2016 or 2020, which led a note of optimism that the Black share would rise as compared to November - as it did when turnout fell. If lower turnout elections meant a higher share of the electorate being Black, that was another sign that Democrats could be favoured in a runoff.
I remember seeing Emerson and Insider Advantage showing GOP leads while showing Democrats holding the GOP's lead with white voters to the high 30s, a better white result than Biden had managed in winning the state, and yet everyone freaking out. I remember seeing those polls showing 60% leads for Democrats with Black voters and chuckling, because of course that won't happen - Biden just won them by over 80%.
But most of all, I remember Friday night - well, technically Saturday morning - when other people realized the thing that I had saw just days after the 2020 election, in this case that turnout was going to lag in the white, rural areas of the state, as they always do as turnout falls.
In the 2008 runoff, the total ballots cast were about 57% of the votes cast in the earlier general election. Obviously, this year should have more than 57% of the ~5M votes cast in November cast for the January races, but it's fairly easy to see where the biggest differentiators will be. The GOP won so big in the 2008 runoff because the white Atlanta suburbs were heavily Republican, and they took on an outsized presence in the runoff as rural turnout fell more than statewide averages, and turnout in Cobb et al didn't fall as much as statewide. Given Cobb and Gwinnett were blood red at the time and Democrats still could do pretty well in rural Georgia, this was death for Democrats. This isn't 2008 anymore, though.
The new coalition of Democrats - Blacks and college whites - is optimised for a runoff because it is optimised for lower turnout elections. The higher you crank turnout, the whiter the electorate gets, and the more rural it gets. At 2020 levels, the white electorate is a lot more concerned with gun rights than gay rights, but every notch turnout falls the white electorate gets more Atlanta based, and a whole lot more socially liberal. Twelve years ago, those voters voted for the GOP for the tax cuts. Now, they're Democrats.
At the end of the day, the history of runoffs can tell us something predictive about how this runoff will go. It's just not the narrative everyone wants to say, which is that Democrats never win runoffs in Georgia. It isn't that I don't know that fact, it's that I know too much - about why that's been true in the past, and why it's not true any longer.