Let me begin with a caveat: Every election has its unique features so there is only so much to learn from reviewing past elections, especially when they are few in number. However, it is possible that patterns from the past may be repeated to a degree. The past is not a perfect predictor, but it may help in anticipating future events, especially if the new events take place in a context similar to past experience.
That the Republican nomination for governor has gone to a runoff is hardly surprising. Due to term limits, there will not be an incumbent governor on the ballot in 2018. With one exception, in every election cycle since Georgia abandoned the county unit system for nominating gubernatorial candidates and moved to the popular vote, when the governor’s office is open the party of the current governor has needed a runoff to choose its nominee. (The one exception came in 1962, the year in which the courts invalidated the county unit system.) Only once, in 1974, did the party that did not have the governorship need a runoff in an open seat year. No sitting governor has ever needed a runoff to win re-nomination. And 1994 was the only year that the party not having the governorship resorted to a runoff to choose a nominee to confront the sitting governor.
Thus, runoffs are the norm for the party of the term-limited governor and occur infrequently under any other condition.
Runoffs are significant because they give the initial runner-up a second change. An examination of all Georgia runoffs for statewide, congressional, state legislative and judicial contests since 1970 shows that the candidate who led the primary won the runoff 69 percent of the time. Incumbents do not fare well in runoffs. Focusing just on open seats, the primary leader won 75 percent of the runoffs. Narrowing the focus to gubernatorial runoffs, the primary leader has won five of nine, but only three of seven elections when the runoff winner became the next governor.
There are a couple of factors that might be associated with success in the runoff. Research has shown that the larger the lead over the runner-up, the more likely that the primary leader will win the runoff. That pattern, however, does not hold for gubernatorial runoffs in the dominant party for open seats. The ordering of the contests by the size of the primary leader’s advantage over the runner-up and the runoff outcomes are listed below.
Year Leader Runner Up Margin Primary Leader
1966 Ellis Arnall Lester Maddox 5.8 Lost
1982 Bo Ginn Joe Frank Harris 10.3 Lost
1970 Jimmy Carter Carl Sanders 10.9 Won
2010 Karen Handel Nathan Deal 11.1 Lost
1990 Zell Miller Andrew Young 12.5 Won
1974 Lester Maddox George Busbee 15.4 Lost
1998 Roy Barnes Lewis Massey 21.3 Won
In May, Casey Cagle led Bryan Kemp by 13.4 percentage points. That is larger than all but two of the values in the table above. Yet Maddox lost to Busbee despite having a lead of 15.4 points. And Carter went on to win the nomination despite having a lead of only 10.9 points.
Another element that may shed light on the outcome of a runoff is the share of the vote won by the primary leader. The closer the leader comes to securing a majority in the first round, the better positioned that person may be to win the runoff. Ordering the contests by the percent of the vote won by the primary leader shows the following.
Year Leader Runner Up Vote % Primary Leader
1966 Ellis Arnall Lester Maddox 29.3 Lost
2010 Karen Handel Nathan Deal 34.1 Lost
1982 Bo Ginn Joe Frank Harris 35.1 Lost
1974 Lester Maddox George Busbee 36.3 Lost
1990 Zell Miller Andrew Young 41.2 Won
1970 Jimmy Carter Carl Sanders 48.6 Won
1998 Roy Barnes Lewis Massey 49.2 Won
We have few cases, but it appears from the data available that somewhere between 36 and 41 percent of the vote in the first round may be decisive in whether the primary leader succeeds in the runoff. In addition, the two Republican runoffs held when a Democrat held the governorship (1974 and 1994) saw the primary leader win the runoff and each of these primary leaders got more than 40 percent of the primary vote. It should be noted that in 1998 Barnes came so close to winning a majority in the primary that runner up Massey did not actively contest the runoff.
Casey Cagle, who led the 2018 GOP primary, received a vote share that falls in the gray area between those who lost runoffs and those who survived. Cagle took 39 percent of the primary vote, exactly equidistant from those who lost after getting less than 37 percent of the primary vote and those who polled at least 41 percent and went on to win.
Previous gubernatorial runoffs do not point conclusively to either Cagle or Brian Kemp as likely winner of the July 24 runoff. Unlike for most other offices, the primary leader has not usually won open seat runoffs for governor. Cagle’s vote share in the primary is not in the range of those candidates who have gone on to win a runoff. On the other hand, he performed better than any of the primary leaders who lost the runoff
During the remaining days before the July 24 runoff, survey operations will undoubtedly release polls. These may provide useful information and will be intriguing to discuss during coffee breaks or over beers at the end of the day. But just as past results do not give a clear picture, the polling may be of limited utility in trying to anticipate the outcome because if the runoff attracts no larger share of the vote than recent runoffs often do, it will be difficult for pollsters to draw reliable samples. Only the vote count on the night of the 24th will end the suspense.
Charles S. Bullock, III, is University of Georgia Professor of Public and International Affairs and co-author of Runoff Elections in the United States. He appreciates the support provided by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation that funded the collection of some of the data presented here.