As the most expensive House race in history rushes toward the finish line Tuesday, the latest public polls are unanimous: The Georgia special election between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel is too close to call.
The race for the suburban Atlanta seat, closely watched for clues about the shape of the 2018 midterm elections, appears to be within a few percentage points — with perhaps the slightest edge to Ossoff, the 30-year-old Democrat seeking to wrest away a traditionally Republican seat in the first major election of Donald Trump’s presidency.
“It’s all well within the margin of error,” said Matthew Towery, whose firm, Opinion Savvy, released a poll last Friday conducted for Atlanta’s Fox affiliate showing Ossoff leading by a single point. “I’d say the preponderance of evidence suggests that Ossoff has a very, very slight lead. But it really is a coin flip right now.”
The tight polling has both parties — which have each made eight-figure investments in the race — expecting a nail-biter Tuesday night. The current state of play: Of the six public polls conducted in June, Ossoff leads in five of them — and hits the 50-percent mark in each of the five — with the fifth showing a tie.
But Ossoff’s lead is far from safe. Outside of an early June Atlanta Journal Constitution poll showing Ossoff ahead by 7 points, the Democrat’s lead is within the margin of error in each of the polls showing him ahead.
Here are five questions about the latest polls — and what they tell us about the eventual outcome in Tuesday’s vote:
Are the polls correctly picking up early voting?
In-person early voting concluded last week, and about 140,000 votes have already been cast — that’s more than 70 percent of the 193,000 total votes tallied in the 18-candidate April vote that led to the upcoming runoff.
During early voting for the April race, Ossoff was the only serious Democratic candidate, which allowed him to bank a large share of the early vote. GOP voters, on the other hand, mostly waited through election night as Handel and three other competitive Republican candidates slugged it out.
But now it’s down to just two candidates — Ossoff and Handel. And while polls and the profile of the early-voting electorate both suggest Ossoff is banking more votes, Handel is more competitive than in the first round of voting, when she was one of many Republicans running.
Ossoff has a 15-point lead among self-described early voters in the Opinion Savvy poll, a 13-point lead in a poll from The Trafalgar Group, a 14-point lead in a SurveyUSA poll conducted for WXIA-TV in Atlanta and a 9-point lead in a WSB-TV/Landmark Communications poll. Then there is the Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll, the only live-caller poll, where Ossoff led by 31 points among early voters.
The huge early vote raises another issue: Are the candidates drawing out new voters, or are they merely cannibalizing voters who would have cast their ballots on Election Day?
“I do see a higher participation from Handel voters in the early voting and see that gap getting a little tighter,” said Robert Cahaly, a senior strategist at The Trafalgar Group, the Atlanta-based firm that found Ossoff with a 3-point lead in a poll last week. “The question is: Does it come at the cost of votes on Election Day?”
Can Ossoff’s ground game change the electorate — and can the polls pick up those changes?
Ossoff may be a first-time candidate running in what has been a reliable GOP district, but he’s managed to raise more campaign cash for a single race than any other congressional hopeful in history: $23.6 million as of May 31, a figure that will likely swell by millions before next Tuesday’s election.
While television advertising still dominated most candidates’ campaign budgets, Ossoff is pouring millions into an unprecedented ground game to turn out new voters and those who haven’t voted in nonpresidential elections previously.
That scrambles the calculus for pollsters, who usually rely on past performance to determine whom they call and who comprises their surveys. In a typical special election, pollsters can rely on data from past midterm and off-year races to establish a likely electorate.
“I like to joke that Ossoff has spent enough money that he could pay Uber to give every single voter a ride to the polls,” Cahaly said. “You can’t duplicate that effort on a national level.”
Will younger voters show up?
This is the most practical — and perhaps most important — question about Ossoff’s ground game: Can he turn support among younger residents of the district into votes?
Turnout among young voters always slumps outside presidential races, but it’s critical for Ossoff. In the Opinion Savvy poll, Ossoff has an astounding, 62-point lead over Handel among voters younger than 30 years of age, 81 percent to 19 percent. But Handel leads by 25 points among seniors — who are typically more reliable voters in off-year races — 62 percent to 37 percent.
While the Opinion Savvy poll shows a more dramatic break among voters by age, it’s still consistent with the general pattern of the race, where younger voters prefer Ossoff. But young voters’ levels of support and turnout weren’t enough to help Ossoff win a majority of the vote in April and avoid the runoff altogether; he finished with 48.1 percent of the vote.
“All the [demographics] will look almost exactly the same as the first round,” Opinion Savvy’s Towery predicted. “He’s performing well with younger voters; she’s performing well with older voters.”
Will GOP voters skeptical of Trump stick with Handel?
When Trump plucked four House members to join his administration, he did so carefully: Each of the four won reelection last year by at least 16 percentage points. Tom Price, the Republican congressman who resigned the Georgia seat to become secretary of Health and Human Services, won by more than 23 points.
But even as Price cruised to reelection, there were signs of trouble for the GOP in the traditionally affluent, Republican suburbs that make up much of the district. Trump carried the seat only narrowly over Hillary Clinton, 48 percent to 47 percent. (Compare that to 2012, when Mitt Romney won the district by a 23-point margin, similar to Price last year.)
Any path to victory for Ossoff has always centered around winning those Clinton-Price voters: traditional Republicans repelled by Trump’s contentious persona and policies. The Opinion Savvy poll shows Ossoff winning 97 percent of voters who “strongly disapprove” of Trump’s job performance — a group that makes up 44 percent of the sample. But he’s only winning 49 percent of those who “somewhat disapprove” of Trump, compared to 39 percent for Handel.
Handel needs to win only a small percentage of the voters aligned against the president. Overall, voters in the district are divided on Trump: Half approve, and half disapprove. Handel is winning roughly 92 percent of voters who approve of Trump’s job performance, the Opinion Savvy poll shows.
What about late-breaking voters?
Voters in Georgia’s 6th District have been inundated with door knocks, telephone calls and television advertisements — the last of which can been seen throughout Metro Atlanta.
The polls reflect this: There are few undecided voters left.
But just because few voters tell pollsters they haven’t made up their minds doesn’t mean they can’t change their minds. And Cahaly, the Trafalgar Group pollster, says he thinks Handel has been gaining in recent weeks.
“What I saw is momentum on her part. I saw her growing strength,” Cahaly said. “I believe this race was 5 or 6 or 7 or 8 points a few weeks ago.”
That runs counter to a POLITICO report last week that Republicans are increasingly worried that Handel is “trending downward” in internal surveys.
But Cahaly cited one other factor that the newest polls might not be picking up: last week’s shootings at congressional Republicans’ baseball practice in Northern Virginia that wounded five people, including House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana.
Cahaly said Trump’s handling of the shooting might bring home enough traditional Republican voters uneasy with the president to carry Handel across the finish line.
“I think it’s an interesting dynamic, and I’d like to see how that affects it,” he said.
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