Monday, January 4, 2021

BTRTN: Our Predictions for Georgia’s Senate Runoff Elections, The Hardest Races Ever to Predict

Tom with the BTRTN prediction for the Georgia Senate runoffs tomorrow.

The Georgia Senate run-off races are both virtual dead heats in the polls.  The environment within which they are being held is unprecedented.  The races are thus completely unpredictable.

This is not a terribly good set-up for an election prognosticator.  But we are nothing if not fearless, so here we go.

Our official BTRTN prediction for the Georgia Senate runoffs is that Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock will both win by narrow margins, 51% to 49% (or closer), giving the Democrats control of the Senate.  This election could take days or even weeks to sort out.

The background here is well known.  After the dust cleared in the November elections, the GOP emerged holding 50 Senate seats, while the Democratic caucus (including the two Independents) held 48.  The two remaining races were both in Georgia, where the law requires that a candidate must receive at least 50% of the vote to be declared the winner.  No candidate reached that mark in either November Senate election, so both will be settled in two-person runoffs tomorrow, January 5, 2021.  Both races feature Republican incumbents, David Perdue, who won his first term in 2014, and Kelly Loeffler, who was appointed by GOP Governor Brian Kemp after the resignation of Johnny Isakson in 2019 due to health considerations.

Joe Biden’s victory left open the possibility for the Democrats to gain control of the Senate if the two Democratic Senate candidates unseat the GOP incumbents in the runoff elections tomorrow.  The Democrats would thus match the GOP's 50 seats, but with Vice President Kamala Harris presiding, they would have control.  Chuck Schumer would become the new Senate Majority Leader, able to control what legislation comes before the chamber, among many other powers that current Leader Mitch McConnell ruthlessly wields.

In November Perdue beat Ossoff by 1.8 percentage points, 49.7% to 47.9%, while Warnock won the Georgia “jungle primary”, with 33% of the vote, to Loeffler’s 26%.  Given the length of the field in that primary, perhaps the more important figure was that the combined total of the Democratic candidates (48.4%) nearly equaled that of the Republicans (49.3%).  Clearly Georgia is a purple state.  In 2017 Ossoff himself nearly pulled off an upset when he ran in a special election in Georgia’s 6th congressional district, losing by a mere three percentage points.  And in 2018, Stacey Abrams nearly became the first Black woman to become a Governor – not just in Georgia but in the United States – losing to Kemp by only two points.

But after this series of “close but no cigar” defeats, Democrats broke through in a big way in the most important election of them all:  when Joe Biden took Georgia in November. 

The runoff polls show a virtual dead heat in both races.  The two Democrats hold very slight leads, well within the margin of error.  The most recent polls, by the GOP pollster Trafalgar, have Ossoff up by +2 and Warnock by +1.

For those of you wondering why we should bother to pay any attention to the polls given their allegedly poor performance in the 2020 elections, keep these two things in mind.  First, we predicted 97 out of 102 races correctly in November, largely on the basis of polls, including 8 of 12 “toss up” races like these two.  (The 102 races included 56 states or districts in the presidential race, 35 Senate races and 11 governor races.)  Second, the presidential and Senate polls in Georgia were accurate.  Biden was slightly ahead in the Georgia polls, we predicted he would win Georgia, and he did.  The Ossoff/Perdue polls were also very close, so close that we predicted neither candidate would reach 50% and it would go to runoff, and that is what happened.  (A third party candidate received about 2% of the vote.)  So when the current runoff election polls say these will be close races, we believe them.

So the stage is set.  Make no mistake, the two Senate races will be decided by turnout.  This election will mirror the pattern of many close races in November, given the dynamics caused by the pandemic are still in force.  Democrats will be more likely to vote early while Republicans will be more likely to vote on January 5.  That is the calculus that each side needs to master to prevail.  And the evidence to date appears to favor the Democrats.  

With respect to the early voting, the current results are impressive for the Democrats – and are extremely worrisome to GOP officials.  There have already been 3 million votes in early voting for the Georgia runoffs, a staggering number by any standard (the general election had 4 million early votes).  The Democrats appear to be doing even better, proportionately, than in the general.  Voting in Democratic urban and suburban strongholds are doing well, while North Georgia, Trump’s heartland, is running behind. The Black vote is ahead (31% versus 26%).  Essentially, it appears the Democrats are getting an even better head start now than in November.

This puts enormous pressure on the other side of the equation for the GOP, which thus needs to outperform their Election Day 2020 turnout tomorrow when the polls open.  But so many factors are working against them.  For starters, Trump was on the ballot in November, and he will not be tomorrow.  He is the animating force in the GOP today, and both he and his strongest supporters do not seem to care much about the fate of the Senate.

And then, of course, Trump himself has been attacking Georgia’s election process, to the point of branding the runoff election “both invalid and illegal.”  In subverting the potential GOP loss of the Senate to his own interests, he has sown massive distrust in the electoral process among his followers, to the point where some percentage of his supporters may refuse to vote in the runoffs.  Even a modest “no vote” protest could swing the election to the Dems.

Beyond that, Trump has tortured Perdue and Loeffler with each of his divisive actions since the election, be it the pummeling of Governor Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (both Republicans), the veto of the National Defense Authorization Act (which includes pay raises for the military), and the initial rejection of the COVID relief bill and its companion government spending bill over the size of the relief checks.  Each required Perdue and Loeffler to perform various degrees of gymnastics that were hardly helpful to their campaign.  (They have kept silent on the attacks, chose not to be present for the Defense bill override vote, and supported Trump on his late-breaking demand for $2,000 checks rather than the $600 checks included in the bill.)

Trump came to Georgia once, ostensibly to support Perdue and Loeffler, but spent more of his time on his own grievance than making the case for the GOP Senators.  His relentless pursuit of upending the presidential race has had the devastating effect of denying both Purdue and Loeffler the ability to make the most potent case for their election:  that they alone are all that stand between the Democrats controlling the White House and both houses of Congress.  (Essentially they cannot make this claim because it undercuts their own position that Trump is the real winner and will prevail in the end in achieving a second term.)

Since Election Day there was one debate in each race, and neither debate was a red letter day for the GOP candidate.  Loeffler was widely panned for a robotic performance, in contrast with the all-too-human Warnock, while Perdue chose not to show up at all rather than face the glib Ossoff again, having been eviscerated by Ossoff in their October debate.  Ossoff instead took on an empty chair and thrashed Purdue in absentia.

None of this means that Ossoff and Warnock will win, but in a very close contest, all of these factors collectively could be just enough to tip the balance their way.  Or not.  One other fact is that Republicans tend to do better in runoffs in Georgia historically, because turnout tends to drop off faster from Democratic segments.  So the race could very well go according to form.  But both races are classic toss-ups.

The final ingredient in the pre-election witches’ brew was yesterday’s release of the already-infamous audio tape of a call from Trump to Raffensperger on Saturday, a point-blank, mob-threatening, and completely illegal demand that the Georgia Secretary of State “find” the 11,780 votes Trump needs to surpass Biden and thereby win Georgia.  He cited a litany of debunked conspiracy theories as the potential source of these votes. 

Trump is due in Georgia today in a rally to support the GOP Senators, but there is little doubt as to his real main topic.

If there are any new polls that arise that point definitely to a different outcome, we may comeback tomorrow with an update.


  1. I live in a deep-red part of South Georgia but thankfully in a neighborhood of like-minded sane individuals that work tirelessly to get every possible voter to the polls. I am breathing a bit easier this morning looking over the news and am looking online for a new sign for my front yard, something with Stacey Abrams face on it and a big thank you for her amazing efforts.

  2. Impressive call of the races ... correct, and very near the margin, too.

    Now we will start finding out just how obnoxious and delayed the process to actually get a certificate of election will be. No matter what, the "majority" will not shift until Jan. 20 at noon, with Harris sworn in. So Georgia has 2 weeks before they are holding up the Democratic majority.

  3. Well! Seems you were 100% correct with your call! As always, thank you al writhing this blog for all the effort you put in. For me this is one of the best political blogs for US politics (and for speculation about Jeremy Lin!)

    Things have changed, democrats control the governing structures - although in a somewhat week way. As you have now a bit of time - it could be interested to see your opinion of the development this coming year! Will we see a "normal" society return or will we see republicans continue their downright spiral as a "populist" party - or will see see the return of the republicans of old?


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