It is understandable if a voter thinks that the only statewide runoff scheduled for next week is to choose the Republican nominee for governor. Casey Cagle and Brian Kemp have each raised millions of dollars that they are spending freely on television ads. Although overshadowed by the GOP gubernatorial contest, there are two other statewide nominations to be decided on the Republican side and one for Democrats to sort out on July 24.
Having a majority-vote requirement provides for two possible short-term winners, i.e. two candidates can advance to the runoff if no one polls a majority. Of critical interest in any contemplation of runoffs is the prospect for the candidate who finished second in the primary to win the runoff. When all Georgia runoffs since 1970 for statewide, congressional, legislative and judicial offices are examined, it becomes clear that most primary leaders go on to win the nomination. The runner up in the primary wins 31 percent of the runoffs. In open seat contests, which is the situation for both of the GOP runoffs reviewed here, the primary leader wins 75 percent of the runoffs.
The top office for which a nominee remains to be selected – aside from governor – is the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor. State Sen. David Shafer came within 6,000 votes of avoiding a runoff as he polled 48.9 percent of the primary vote. He faces Rep. Geoff Duncan who drew 26.7 percent.
Georgia has had seven previous runoffs for lieutenant governor. The primary leader won four times. Five of these were for open seats and the primary leader won all but the Democratic contest in 1998.
The share of the vote received by the primary leader in open seat contests for lieutenant governor is associated with the likelihood of success in the runoff as shown below.
Leader Runoff Outcome?
Year Leader Runner Up Vote % Primary Leader
1990 Pierre Howard Joe Kennedy 28.5 Won
1998 Mary Margaret Oliver Mark Taylor 29.3 Lost
1974 Zell Miller Mary Hitt 31.2 Won
1998 Mitch Skandalakis Clint Day 35.9 Won
2006 Jim Martin Greg Hecht 41.2 Won
The three most successful primary leaders won the runoff. The one loser is tied for the smallest primary vote share doing less than a percentage point better than Pierre Howard in the primary. The table above suggests that Shafer’s commanding lead will enable him to gain the additional vote share needed to secure the nomination.
Although less comparable, since they occurred when an incumbent lieutenant governor sought reelection, the results of those two runoffs give hope to Duncan. Mike Beatty and Peter Zack Geer each did better than any of the primary leaders in the table above but then lost the runoff. Despite getting 44.8 percent of the primary vote, Beatty lost the GOP nomination to confront sitting lieutenant governor Mark Taylor in 2002. Even more stunning was the experience of Lieutenant Governor Peter Zack Geer. When Geer sought a second term he came oh so close to avoiding a runoff as he took 49.1 percent. But he failed in the runoff slumping to just 44.5 percent. When all seven runoffs for lieutenant governor are considered, the two most successful primary candidates came up short in the second round.
Secretary of State
Republicans will settle on a candidate for secretary of state. In the first round, Rep. Brad Raffensperger led former Alpharetta mayor David Belle Isle 35 – 28.5 percent.
There have been six previous runoffs for this office and the primary leader won four times. Three of the contests were for an open seat and the primary leader prevailed twice. Three runoffs were to choose the GOP nominee and the primary leader won two. In the third, David Shafer won the nomination in 1996 after trailing in the primary by a scant 413 votes.
As with runoffs for lieutenant governor, the table below shows an association between the share of the vote won in the primary and runoff success.
Leader Runoff Outcome?
Year Leader Runner Up Vote % Primary Leader
2006 Gail Buckner Darryl Hicks 25.4 Won
2010 Gail Buckner Georganna Sinkfield 35.1 Lost
1996 Willou Smith David Shafer 36.3 Lost
2006 Karen Handel Bill Stephens 43.6 Won
2010 Charlie Bailey Vernadette Broyles 47.1 Won
1982 Max Cleland David Poythress 47.2 Won
Each of the primary leaders who got at least 43 percent in the first round won the runoff. The two candidates who got just over a third of the primary vote, lost. The one election out of line is the Buckner victory in 2006 when she polled just a quarter of the primary vote in a six-candidate field.
Curiously the two candidates who led the primary field but could not close the deal in the second round had about 35 percent of the vote – the share received by this year’s primary leader.
State School Superintendent
Runoffs for state school superintendent are infrequent. Only three have been held and two of those took place in 2014.
Two decided the Democratic nomination and in each the primary leader secured the nomination. In 2014, the runner up in the GOP primary, Richard Wood, overcame a 6.2 percentage point deficit to get the nomination.
This year Democrats will decide between Otha Thornton and Sid Chapman. Thornton led in the primary with 43.9 percent of the vote to Chapman’s 36.5 percent. Thornton’s margin over Chapman is greater than two of the previous primary leaders for this office but only half of the advantage Valarie Wilson enjoyed over Alisha Morgan four years ago. Thornton secured a much greater share of the vote than the leaders in previous school superintendent runoffs. Wilson is the previous primary leader whose first round performance came closest to Thornton as she managed 38.4 percent in the primary.
The caveat attached to last week’s article on the GOP gubernatorial runoff applies to these contests. Patterns from the past do not control results in the future. When there is a clear pattern in previous elections, a betting person would factor that in when placing a wager. But as any sports’ fan knows and as was most recently demonstrated in the World Cup competition and at Wimbledon, favorites can be upset. Given the rate at which the runner up overtakes the primary leader in a runoff, it is likely that one of the primary leaders in the four statewide contests to be decided on July 24 will come up short.
Charles S. Bullock, III, is University Professor of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia 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 analyzed here.