There are some things that even $30 million can’t buy. Expenditures in that range failed to secure victory for Democrats in the special election to fill Tom Price’s congressional seat. The millions spent between the April primary and the June 20 second round had no impact on the outcome. In April the eleven Republicans got a combined total of 51% while the five Democrats’ vote share totaled 49%. Democrat Jon Ossoff had a large lead in the first round with 48.1%. Nine weeks, tens of millions of dollars and untold numbers of mail-outs, TV ads and door-knocks, Ossoff won 48.1% of the vote on June 20.
Ossoff’s defeat is the latest in a series of near misses for Democrats attempting to use special elections to make gains in Republican areas. The close losses may indicate something about the popularity of the president but there could be a more general explanation for why districts that had been securely Republican for years turned competitive in 2017. The critical change element may be the absence of an incumbent and not the presence of Donald Trump. Invariably the party that has held a seat does less well when it must replace the incumbent. Incumbent name recognition, federal dollars showered on the district, and help given constituents accumulates support for the incumbent above what the party label alone would attract. The departure of the incumbent results in a retirement slump as the former incumbent’s party gets a smaller share of the vote than in the past just as has occurred in the recent special elections.
Some will see in the Georgia 6 results omens for 2018. The president’s party almost always loses seats in a mid-term election so Democrats should make gains in the US House, but can they flip the 24 seats needed for Nancy Pelosi to wield the gavel? Democrats may take the glass-half-full perspective on these special elections and stress how close they came in districts long out of reach. But coming close counts only in horseshoes, hand grenades and slow dancing. Looking toward 2018, if Democrats could not win these open seats and, in Georgia 6, could not win despite record spending, how well will they fare against incumbents next year?
The results in the Sixth District may hint at what could happen in Georgia’s 2018 high profile statewide contests. Democrats hope to end their sixteen year banishment from the Governor’s Mansion next fall. What is the best way to overcome the 200,000-vote deficit that has thwarted Democrats in recent years? Should resources be devoted to winning over moderate Republicans or would expanding the electorate be more effective?
The approach and the one that Stacy Abrams, should she be the Democratic gubernatorial standard bearer, seems likely to embrace emphasizes mobilizing heretofore disengaged potential Democrats, a disproportionately minority group. Results from the Sixth District demonstrate that mobilization is possible. Unlike most runoffs where fewer participate than in the first round, turnout increased by more than a third from April to June. However it was not just previously-missing Democrats who cast ballots. It appears, based on a comparison of the two rounds of voting, that for every additional Democrat a new Republican showed up to vote. Democratic mobilization in the fall of 2018 might be countered by a comparable effort on the GOP side.
A final observation derived from the Handel – Ossoff result involves polling. As happened last year in the presidential election, the GOP candidate ran ahead of what pollsters anticipated. Pollsters recognize that there is a degree of error that accompanies their estimates of likely behavior and report a confidence interval. It would not be surprising then if in a set of recent polls about half would under-predict the support for the Republican and about half would over- predict support for that candidate. Of the publicly-released surveys conducted since the first week in May, Ossoff led in all but three and some had him above 50%. One survey had Karen Handel up by two points and two showed a tie. The disproportionate distribution favoring Ossoff could be due to a consistent under-representation of Republican-leaning voters in surveys or a last-minute shift toward Karen Handel. If the former explains why Handel ran ahead of most survey results, pollsters need to re-weight their samples or they will continue to under-estimate Republican’s support.
Charles S. Bullock, III, is the Richard B. Russell Professor of Political Science at the University of Georgia and co-author and co-editor of The New Politics of the Old South the sixth edition of which will be published in August.