Jon Ossoff was on a trajectory to defeat Karen Handel narrowly, poised to deliver a humiliating blow to the White House in a race billed as a referendum of Donald Trump’s early months in office. Then the Republican voters in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District unexpectedly showed up in droves.
Pollsters say sky-high turnout drove Handel, the GOP nominee, to a nearly 4-point victory on Tuesday, despite most pre-election surveys showing Ossoff with a small-but-shrinking lead.
Mathematically, a 4-point loss for a Democratic House candidate in a district that has traditionally elected Republicans by wide margins is an encouraging result for Democrats. But in the end, the Georgia contest represented yet another election in which the Democratic candidate either led or was tied in public polls — and was overtaken by the Republican when all the votes were counted.
Unlike in some other races, however, it wasn’t because Democratic voters didn’t show up. More than 259,000 votes have been tallied as of Wednesday afternoon, considerably more than the 193,000 votes in the first round of voting in April.
In fact, turnout was much higher than for other off-year special elections in recent history. Typically, between 100,000 and 225,000 voters turn out for special elections like the one held on Tuesday in Atlanta’s northern suburbs, where both parties compete.
John Anzalone, Ossoff’s pollster, said the Democrat’s campaign succeeded in turning out its voters — but they were swamped by Republicans who came out in numbers that ended up dwarfing previous high-profile special elections, like those in which former Reps. Mark Critz (D-Pa.) and Travis Childers (D-Miss.) were successful in the past decade.
“This has much more to do with a historic turnout — 260,000 people, 40,000 more than a midterm — in a special election, which is normally a very restrictive universe,” said Anzalone, who added that the more than two months between the initial vote on April 18 and Tuesday’s runoff gave Republicans time to organize. “At the end of the day with 260,000 people voting, we just ran out of Democrats and independents.”
The turnout surge surprised the only public pollster to predict Handel as the winner: the Atlanta-based Trafalgar Group, which released a poll the day before the election showing the Republican 2 points ahead. Trafalgar’s Robert Cahaly said Wednesday that their turnout prediction was “in the 230 [thousand] range” and that the surge of additional voters boosted Handel.
“When turnout starts going up that high, and people start coming out of the woodwork to vote,” Cahaly said, “it moves back to the [natural] alignment of the district.”
Cahaly added that, in his view, Handel and Republican outside groups also drove turnout by nationalizing the race. In addition, pollsters in both parties suggested Handel gained additional momentum following the shootings in Virginia last week at congressional Republicans’ baseball practice.
“It’s not that people were like, ‘Oh, this terrible tragedy happened to Republicans. We’re going to rally around Republicans,’” Cahaly said. “[But] it kind of galvanized these folks. And we watched her percentages of Republicans go from the high 70s to over 85 over the weekend. Republicans were definitely consolidating behind her.”
Regardless of the cause, it’s undeniably discouraging for Democrats to come up short in a race into which they invested tens of millions of dollars — and in which they thought they had at least a 50-50 chance to win. That’s even as the party finished much closer than expected in another special congressional election Tuesday night, in South Carolina.
But Georgia ultimately represents another in a series of contests in which Democrats have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. The election cycles between 2013 and 2017 are littered with surprise examples of Democratic underperformance.
The party isn’t ignoring the issue: The Democratic Governors Association earlier this month rolled out a statistical model to its pollsters to account for late-deciding or defecting voters that could swing against the party’s candidates at the end.
Democrats say they hope Trump’s low approval ratings mean voters will swing toward, not against, their candidates in the closing days of elections to come. But that doesn’t seem to have happened in Georgia — even though Trump lagged behind other Republicans there in last year’s presidential election.
Cahaly, the Atlanta-based pollster who works for GOP clients, said he thinks that, in many places, Republicans are less likely to want to share their vote choice with pollsters than are Democrats. That has impacted how he’s interpreted his data.
“I’ve had numerous clients where I’ve said, ‘You’re dead even, so you’re up by 3,’” Cahaly recalled Wednesday. “And they said, ‘What do you mean?’ And I said, ‘You’re up by 3.’”
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