Although I know nothing about her sports team loyalties, I suspect that GOP 6th U.S. Congressional District candidate Karen Handel is a Falcons fan. But she now finds herself needing to replicate the New England Patriots’ furious fourth quarter rally if she is to go to Congress. At half time (think of the first round primary back in April), Handel was 28 points down trailing Democrat opponent Jon Ossoff 48 – 20 percent.
Fortunately for Handel our electoral system has elements not found in football. Once the contest is reduced to two candidates, the survivors set out to secure support from fellow partisans eliminated in the initial round of voting. Ossoff had great success in consolidating the Democratic vote getting 98.4% of the votes cast for Democratic candidates so there is not much to add to his initial total from those sources. The other ten Republicans, however, combined for more than 30 percent of the votes cast. If Handel consolidates their support, she is well positioned. In April the eleven Republicans combined for 51 percent of the total vote.
Handel cannot assume that all of those who voted for a Republican in the spring will rally to her side in June. Despite sharing a partisan tie, some who backed strong contenders like Dan Moody, Judson Hill, and Bob Gray may not come through. Some of these orphaned voters will sit out the runoff. With their favorite eliminated they have less incentive to cast a ballot before leaving on vacation or they may get caught up in other activities on June 20 and not make it to the polling place. Some may harbor ill will toward Handel over something said or done in the hurly burly of the first round.
While April saw more Republican than Democratic preferences tallied, Republicans may not return to the polls in greater numbers than Democrats. The oceans of money that have deluged the district may have an impact — at least that is the hope of those writing the checks. Which side has the better ground game? Are one set of partisans more fired up than the opposition? Particularly effective are personal appeals asking people to go vote. Door knocking that urges the respondent to cast a vote can increase participation by a few percentage points and in a close contest that could the difference.
Come from behind victories are not uncommon in Georgia runoffs. Over the last half century, the runner-up overtook the first round leader just over 30 percent of the time in runoffs for positions other than local offices. Twenty-eight points, however, is a lot of ground to make up. In only three instances among more than 200 come-from-behind victories did the ultimate winner overcome a deficit of at least 20 points with the largest difference being 23 points.
Most runoffs have been confined to the voters of a single party. Since the 6th District runoff follows a special election to fill a vacancy it introduces some differences. The potential electorate is larger since in primary runoffs those who participated in the other party’s primary cannot vote in the runoff. Second, special election runoffs do not experience the kind of drop off in participation often associated with party runoffs. With all the hype around the 6th District contest, runoff turnout might actually exceed the first round vote. Third, front runners have better prospects in special elections than in primaries. The leader in a special election goes on to victory in almost 80 percent of runoffs.
All things considered, if Karen Handel goes to Congress, it will cap a remarkable comeback– one equivalent to what the New England Patriots managed in the Super Bowl earlier this year.
Charles S. Bullock, III, is the Richard B. Russell Professor of Political Science at the University of Georgia and co-author of Runoff Elections in America.