Headed into the 2020 election, we knew that Election Day might turn into Election Week or even Election Month because of the huge increase in mail voting due to the coronavirus pandemic. While it thankfully didn’t take a month to find out who won the presidency or which party will control the House, we are still in the dark about who will control the U.S. Senate.
The answer now hinges on Georgia and its two Senate races. That’s right, Georgia is holding an unprecedented double runoff for both its Senate seats on Jan. 5, and in a Hollywood-style flourish, these two races will decide which party controls the chamber in the next Congress. In other words, Georgia is now at the center of the political universe, and the outcome here is uncertain considering the state just voted Democratic in the presidential election for the first time in 28 years.
We don’t have a ton of polls of these runoffs yet, but FiveThirtyEight is rolling out its polling averages for both of the contests today to help everyone keep tabs on where things stand. (Note that these are not forecasts like the ones we published for the White House, Senate and House before the November election; they do not account for non-polling factors such as the state’s base partisanship, demographics or candidate quality. They are simply a fancy snapshot of what the polling says right now.)
And based on the initial wave of polls conducted since the Nov. 3 general election, both runoff races look very close. In the regularly scheduled Senate race, Republican Sen. David Perdue is roughly tied with Democrat Jon Ossoff, while in the special election, Democrat Raphael Warnock holds a narrow lead over Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler (who was appointed in January 2020 to fill a vacancy, which is why she’s up for election).
As we said at the outset, there hasn’t been a ton of polling yet, so it’s hard to read too much into the few polls we do have. But less than a week after the general election, GOP pollster Remington Research went into the field and found Perdue ahead by 4 points in the regularly scheduled contest and Loeffler and Warnock locked in a virtual tie in the special election. Then in mid-November, Insider Advantage/Fox5 Atlanta found both sets of candidates running neck and neck. Two late-November polls were somewhat more bullish for Democrats. RMG Research/PoliticalIQ found both races to be very tight but with Ossoff and Warnock leading by 1 and 2 points, respectively, while a SurveyUSA/WXIA-TV poll gave Ossoff a 2-point edge over Perdue and Warnock a 7-point lead over Loeffler. Lastly, Republican pollster Trafalgar Group just released an early-December poll that showed Ossoff and Perdue separated by less than 1 point, but Loeffler ahead by about 5 points.
Of course, some may wonder if it’s worth putting much stock in these runoff surveys after polls across the country underestimated President Trump’s support in November. But remember the polls in Georgia actually did pretty well: Biden led by 1.2 points in FiveThirtyEight’s final Georgia polling average, and he wound up winning the state by about 0.3 points, meaning the polls were only off by about a point. So we don’t think you should dismiss these runoff polls just yet.
Unsurprisingly, the runoff polls show the two races shaping up pretty similarly to each other, and the expectation is that each party’s vote share will be about the same in both races, much as they were in the initial vote. In the regular contest, Perdue won 49.7 percent support while Ossoff garnered 47.9 percent. Because of Georgia’s rules for holding special elections, that contest included multiple contenders from each party, but the aggregate vote total for each party was still very close to the Perdue-Ossoff split: The Republican candidates combined had a narrow 1-point edge, 49.4 percent to 48.4 percent, over the Democrats.
Now, it’s true that Democrats running in the special election did slightly better than Ossoff, but one key challenge for both Loeffler and Warnock in the special election is that each will have to consolidate support from voters who backed other candidates in the first round of the special election. (Republican candidates other than Loeffler won 23.5 percent while Democrats other than Warnock won 15.5 percent.) But in such a polarized and partisan environment, both Democratic and Republican voters should mostly come home to their nominees.
Take the latest SurveyUSA poll of the race, where Warnock attracted 97 percent of Democrats and Loeffler won 92 percent of Republicans. It was a similar story with the InsideAdvantage survey: Warnock won 94 percent of Democrats while Loeffler won 89 percent of Republicans. That means much of the race could boil down to how independents swing; in SurveyUSA’s poll, for instance, they split almost evenly in both races. But with about four weeks of campaigning to go, voters’ preferences could change.
The state is already being bombarded with arguments from both sides: A staggering $283 million has been spent on TV ads, and observers estimate that the total could reach half a billion dollars when all is said and done. Trump himself held a rally there on Saturday, which could inspire his base to turn out for Loeffler and Perdue but could also incite Democrats to turn out in opposition. (Georgia, as you may have heard, is now a purple state; in fact, it was the state decided by the smallest margin in the 2020 presidential election.)
But not all of the messaging is consistent, at least on the GOP side: Some pro-Trump figures who still (falsely) insist that last month’s presidential vote in Georgia was rigged are urging Republicans not to participate in an election they do not view as fair. While it seems unlikely that the message can compete with a nine-digit ad campaign to drive up turnout, there are signs that Republicans’ current lack of faith in the electoral process could keep some of them away from the ballot box. According to the SurveyUSA poll, just 16 percent of Republicans said they had “full confidence” that runoff votes will be counted accurately, although there’s no reason to think they won’t be. And among registered voters who backed Trump in November but said they aren’t likely to vote in the runoffs, 23 percent said the main reason they planned to stay home was that they believed the voting process was rigged.
We’ll hopefully get a clearer picture of the evolution of the race as we get more polls in the coming weeks, so be sure to bookmark our Georgia runoff polling averages and check back regularly. For now, though, the early polls suggest both contests will be quite competitive, and while the GOP has historically done better in Georgia runoffs than in the preceding general election, there’s never been a runoff like this before — one that will decide not only who will be Georgia’s next two senators, but also which party will control the entire Senate.