Politics

Who Will Decide the Georgia Election?

Both parties are pouring millions of dollars into the state in the hopes of turning out a handful of voters.

People wait in a socially distanced line in a hallway, some standing against the wall, others sitting on folding chairs. All are masked. Some are wearing Santa hats.
Early voting in Atlanta in December. Megan Varner/Getty Images

It is not an exaggeration to say that Georgia voters currently hold the fate of the nation in their hands. The two runoffs in the state will determine partisan control of the Senate: Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock must both beat incumbent Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, respectively, in the Jan. 5 election to give the Democratic Party the bare majority it needs to accomplish anything in Joe Biden’s first term as president. Never before has the balance of the country’s legislature remained undecided for so long after a national election.

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And it’s difficult to predict which party will prevail. The conventional wisdom about runoffs no longer seems to apply. Usually, when there’s a runoff election in Georgia, lots of people who voted in November don’t show up to vote again in January. But by the end of December 2020, turnout for early voting was just slightly behind what it was for the general election. “There have always been huge drop-offs,” said Charles Bullock, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia. “But we’ve never been the center of the political universe, either.”

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Bullock, who has been at UGA since 1968, says he’s never seen anything like the full-force campaigning that began shortly after the November election. Campaigns and PACs have sunk enormous sums of cash into the state in hopes of turning out just a few thousand more voters here and there. In a set of races that could be swung by so many different demographics, subdemographics, and idiosyncratic slices of voters, everyone’s getting courted. Spending on the two races is nearing $400 million—a sum, dispensed in two months, greater than the cost of any of the 2020 Senate races that began a year or more before Election Day. Georgia residents are finally getting the full swing-state treatment: Television stations are airing five or six political advertisements back-to-back at every commercial break. Households are receiving multiple paper mailers per day, every day. Fair Fight, the voting rights group founded by Stacey Abrams in the wake of her 2018 gubernatorial bid, saw its weekend volunteer roster more than double after Georgia’s presidential race was called for Biden.

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Jansen Killian, a 21-year-old recent graduate of Georgia Southern University and political director of the Georgia Association of College Republicans, said she’s inexplicably received several mailers from the Democratic candidates, who apparently haven’t perfected their voter targeting mechanisms. (Or maybe hope to capture Killian’s vote based on her age and gender.) Killian has been working on Loeffler’s campaign for several months, and she’s met activists from all over the country who’ve effectively moved to Georgia in recent weeks to volunteer with one or more campaign. “The entire nation is in Georgia,” she said. To voters she’s met who say they’re tired of political ads dominating their televisions, radios, and mailboxes, “I’m like, ‘You guys, we’re kind of in charge of the entire Senate.’ Everyone’s saying, ‘We gotta save America!’ I think that’s a little intense, but it’s really cool to be involved in an election like this.”

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The massive funding and national consequences of the two campaigns are just part of why the outcomes of these races are hard to predict. There’s the pandemic, of course, which has messed with the go-to tactics of traditional political campaigns. There’s Trump, who upended the usual dynamic of down-ballot candidates riding the coattails of a popular candidate at the top of the ticket. Trump fared worse than the Republican Senate candidates in Georgia, which could be good news for the GOP with Trump off the ticket this week.

And according to Bullock, Democratic candidates have historically fared poorly in Georgia runoffs, even if they led in their general elections. Runoff voters are usually older and whiter than those who turn out for a general election. (The runoff system was set up to disenfranchise Black voters, and so far it appears to be functioning as intended.) Democrats are hoping that Warnock, the Black senior pastor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s former church, will motivate Black voters to overcome the obstacles of the pandemic and voter suppression efforts to vote a second time.

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Democrats don’t just need to match their general election results to win on Tuesday. They need to exceed them, by a lot. Perdue bested Ossoff by nearly 100,000 votes in November; in the other Senate race, the combined vote share won by the six Republican candidates was greater than the eight Democrats’. But some advocates are focusing their messaging on a different November number: the approximately 12,000 votes that put Biden over the top. To many Georgians excited by the prospect of a new political future for their state, that slim margin of victory says any given group of voters could potentially swing the outcome of the runoff this week.

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Daniel Coley, 20, is an undergraduate at Kennesaw State University and the Georgia director of the Campus Election Engagement Project, a nonpartisan organization that promotes student voting. After the general election, he made triumphant use of Biden’s margin of victory in his pitch to fellow students to vote again in the runoff. “Biden won by about 12,000 votes. Kennesaw has a population of 41,000 students,” he said. “It really, really puts it into perspective for a lot of people. So now I’m running around saying, ‘Hey, remember you said your vote doesn’t matter or doesn’t count? Look at this number! It’s incredibly small!’ ”

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Georgia’s recent history of rising youth voter turnout has Coley especially hyped for the possibility that he and his peers could decide the future of the Senate. In November, Georgia youth (people ages 18 to 29) made up 20 percent of the electorate—the greatest share of any state. And of the 76,000 people who’ve registered to vote after the registration deadline for the November general election—in other words, people who couldn’t vote in the general election but may vote in the runoff—more than half are under 35 years old.

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“I tell a lot of people, ‘This was a very close election, and a very pivotal election, and now you voting has put Georgia in the history books,’ ” Coley said. He is slightly worried that youth turnout could be stymied by winter break, which has most students off campus until after the runoff, but said his organization’s campus representatives did a lot of student outreach before the break, and continue to send emails to students through faculty members. One student representative planned to send a postcard to her fellow undergraduates at their home addresses, hoping to convince them to vote early in person or send absentee ballots from home. “Young people actually like getting mail,” Coley said.

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Democrats will also need a strong turnout from voters of color, who handed Biden his victory, to beat the Republican incumbents this week. The party had a hard time turning out Black Georgians for early voting in some rural areas of the state, but there are signs that the difference between the November electorate and the January one won’t necessarily favor the GOP. By late December, according to the CEO of Democratic data firm TargetSmart, Black voters made up about 40 percent of the nearly 68,000 people who didn’t vote in the general election but had already voted in the runoff. Only 27 percent of the Georgians who cast votes in the general election were Black.

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Asian American turnout, which TargetSmart says increased by 91 percent from 2016 to 2020, was essential to Biden’s win in Georgia, too. Asian American and Pacific Islander voters are a small minority in the state, but 238,000 eligible voters are plenty able to swing a close race. (Though they are a politically and ethnically diverse demographic group, AAPI voters overwhelmingly supported Biden in November.) The nonpartisan National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum employs canvassers in Georgia who speak 11 AAPI languages, including Tamil, Cantonese, Vietnamese, and Urdu. Along with a team of volunteers, they made 18,000 phone calls to AAPI women voters in advance of the November election. They are continuing their phone-banking, text-banking, and a multilingual postcard campaign in the lead-up to the runoffs. So far, they’ve held 275 individual phone-banking shifts and made more than 8,000 calls for the runoffs, with an 80 percent commit-to-vote rate among the people they’ve reached.

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Bianca Jyotishi, NAPAWF’s Georgia organizing manager, said the organization tries to reach women before they’re even eligible to vote. Canvassers contact and enroll new immigrants, permanent residents, and refugees in trainings on political activism, “so by the time they are citizens, voting is just another dinnertime conversation,” Jyotishi said. “We’re really working to normalize voting within our communities because so many of us grew up without that, myself included.”

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Sometimes, NAPAWF’s canvassers will encounter a woman who declines her voter education materials because, she says, her husband votes for her. In other households, the men in the family—husbands, sons, fathers—will answer the door or the phone as a kind of gatekeeper, requiring canvassers to give them their spiel before notifying the female family member that someone is trying to reach her. “What has been really helpful is our languages. Being able to speak in that person’s language is monumental in our work,” Jyotishi said. Once, a man on the phone was about to hang up on a NAPAWF representative when the canvasser asked, based on his last name, if he spoke Bengali. He did, and the conversation continued in Bengali. He eventually passed the phone to his wife, who said she usually lets her husband answer the phone because she isn’t confident in her English language skills.

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NAPAWF doesn’t advocate for specific candidates, but Jyotishi says Georgia’s high AAPI turnout in November has heightened many voters’ excitement for the Senate runoffs. “Honestly, our people are really excited to have a leader who doesn’t refer to the global pandemic as ‘the China virus,’ ” she said. Loeffler, too, has blamed China for the pandemic and accused its leaders of infecting Trump. Perdue has mocked Kamala Harris’ first name, which is of Sanskrit origin. Asian American voters who expect a modicum of cultural respect from their elected officials are struggling to find it on the Republican side of the ballot.

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Republicans, meanwhile, aren’t exactly heading into the runoffs as a united front. A small but possibly consequential slice of Georgia voters split their November tickets between Biden and a Republican Senate candidate: Biden got about 100,000 more votes in Georgia than Ossoff did, largely from Georgians in suburban, white, highly educated, higher-income precincts. These voters were likely motivated less by the thought of Biden getting anything done, which he’d need a Democratic Senate majority for, than by a desire to remove Trump from office. This is why the close margin in the presidential election doesn’t necessarily portend good news for Democrats. Then again, the split-ticket voters who just wanted Trump out of office may stay home, since Trump’s already out, unless they’re particularly excited about the prospect of a Republican Senate and a government that does absolutely nothing.

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Killian, the College Republicans leader, says she knows a lot of people who split their November ticket between Biden and a Republican. She also saw one Trump-supporting woman post on Facebook that she intended to abstain from the January runoffs because she was angry about the Georgia Republican Party’s unwillingness to overturn the state’s election results and give its electoral votes to Trump.

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If enough Trump loyalists in Georgia sign on to the president’s feud with state Republican officials, and obey pro-Trump lawyer Lin Wood’s call to boycott the runoff to send a message to the GOP, they could hand the election to one or more of the Democratic candidates. This narrative of Trump-driven GOP self-destruction, tantalizingly floated by many a political reporter, relies on the dubious assumption that a significant number of Trump voters are willing to hand Democrats a unified government—during a time when, their chosen leaders assure them, the country is sliding into anarchy and also socialism—just to make a point.

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On the beef with the Georgia Republicans who didn’t do enough to deliver Georgia to Trump, Killian is telling angry Trump supporters, “ ‘Hey, we’ll put that on pause, and we’ll come back to it. Please go to the polls. This is not a time to become complacent,’ ” she said. “I would think that maybe they’re just upset, and by the time Jan. 5 comes around, they’ll lick their wounds.” And the woman who’d posted that she was joining the Republican boycott? “I Facebook-stalked her the other day,” Killian said. “She was like, ‘I did go vote.’ ”

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