Georgia is unique in requiring majorities in both primaries and general elections. Since two statewide contests saw no majority winner, the last round of the 2018 election cycle will play out on December 4. The December vote will select the secretary of state and a member of the Public Service Commission. In November Brad Raffensperger (R) led John Barrow (D) by 16,278 votes in the SOS contest. PSC member Chuck Eaton (R) ran 79,636 votes ahead of Lindy Miller (D).
Four statewide general election contests have been decided in runoffs in the past. The runoff next month will be the first since 2008 when Saxby Chambliss came up 9,110 votes short of a majority in his reelection bid. The previous statewide runoffs involved a Senate reelection and a place on the PSC in 1992 and a PSC seat in 2006.
With only four cases, the data base is very thin for making generalizations. Nonetheless the most striking feature is that regardless of how the party candidates finished in the general election, the Republican prevailed in each runoff. Senator Wyche Fowler led by 35,134 votes in 1992 but lost to Paul Coverdell by 16,237 votes in the runoff. In that same cycle Bobby Baker who led in November won the runoff. A 2006 PSC runoff saw incumbent David Burgess felled by Chuck Eaton who now finds himself in a second runoff. Burgess led in the November vote by 52,871 but in the low turnout runoff came up 9,372 votes short. In the 2008 Senate runoff and the 1992 PSC runoff, the GOP candidates expanded on their general election leads. Chambliss went from just under 50 percent to 57 percent in the second round.
The basic rule for candidates competing in both primary and general election runoffs is to get those who supported for you in the first round back for the encore. A second generalization based on our N of four is that turnout in the runoff comes in far below the November participation. In 1992 and 2008 with a Senate seat at stake, turnout fell by almost half. Specifically, the Coverdell – Fowler runoff drew 55.7 percent of the participants in the November general election. The PSC contest between Bobby Baker and John Frank Collins was in line with the Senate runoff held at the same time. The Chambliss – Martin runoff had 57 percent of the turnout of the November vote. With only the low-profile PSC contest on the ballot, the 2006 Eaton – Burgess runoff saw participation fall by almost 90 percent.
Many who vote in the general election do not find the runoff sufficiently interesting to make another trip to the polls. Disinterest has been more pervasive among Democrats than Republicans. Will the pattern repeat this year?
Much of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams’ campaign effort sought to mobilize individuals who had not previously voted or usually sit out midterm elections. Without her competing in the runoff will those who stormed to the polls to vote for her return? The flips that turned Fowler and Burgess from plurality leaders to runoff losers do not auger well for Barrow and Miller who do not simply need to hold on to leads – like those that got away from Fowler and Burgess – but must make up ground.
The drop in turnout may not be as dramatic as in the 2006 PSC runoff but it will likely exceed that in the two Senate runoffs. The Senate runoffs came in the afterglow of a presidential election. After years in the White House, Republicans lost the presidency in both 1992 and 2008 and eagerly looked for a silver lining. Beating the incoming president’s party for a Senate seat provided inspiration that retaining the post of secretary of state cannot match.
Charles S. Bullock, III, is Distinguished University Professor of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia and co-author of Runoff Elections in the United States.