Sabato's Crystal Ball

The Georgia House Special: Still on the Razor’s Edge

Beware sweeping conclusions from a race that could feature a very close outcome

Kyle Kondik, Managing Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball June 15th, 2017

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We are not going to make a call in the GA-6 special election. Such elections are notoriously hard to poll and prone to unpredictable results. Besides, events of recent days (the British parliamentary elections, where the Conservatives did worse than many expected, as well as the Virginia gubernatorial primaries, which defied most polls) and months (our own presidential election) have instructed us that discretion is sometimes the better part of valor in the election prognostication game. So GA-6 remains a Toss-up.

All that said, it does seem like going into the much-watched election Tuesday (June 20), one would probably rather be former congressional aide Jon Ossoff (D) than ex-Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel (R), albeit only narrowly. There are three reasons for that: 1. He has led several recent public polls and is at or slightly above 50% in three of them, which is generally a good sign for any candidate; 2. He has raised an absurd amount of money and is decisively winning the ad war despite Republican outside groups outspending Democratic outside groups; and 3. We’re in a national environment that is generally anti-Republican and/or pro-Democratic on account of President Trump’s poor approval ratings and the general trend in favor of the presidential “out” party in special and midterm elections.

However, the race clearly is close enough that it could go either way, and conflicting signs abound.

For instance, there are two public pollsters that have conducted multiple polls since the first round of voting on April 18. One poll’s trend line is good for Ossoff: Landmark Communications’ three polls of the race for WSB-TV have shown the following results: Handel 49%-47%, then Ossoff 49%-48%, and most recently Ossoff 50%-47%. On the other hand, SurveyUSA’s poll for 11Alive just found the race tied at 47% after Ossoff led 51%-44% in a poll released three weeks ago. Internal surveys reportedly show a very tight race.

Clearly, either side would claim a victory as a tremendous triumph.  Given the immense expenditures on both sides (this is the most expensive House race ever, and not by just a little) the winning side will be justified in doing so. But as neutral observers, we just want to be cognizant of the fact that a small victory either way shouldn’t change our perceptions all that much.

In the first round, voters cast about 190,000 votes. Early voting has been robust in the leadup to the runoff, perhaps suggesting that turnout will be higher, especially because some voters who did not participate in the first round have already voted in the runoff. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that turnout does go up, and it reaches 210,000 voters — roughly matching the 2014 midterm general election turnout in this district — and the final result is 51%-49% either way. Such a race would produce a winning margin of roughly 4,200 votes, so the election would swing on the decision of about 2,100 people (meaning that if the margin is 4,200, if 2,101 people switched their votes, it would change the outcome). Should we really draw broad, sweeping conclusions based on such a small number of voters? Probably not. An Ossoff win would not by itself mean a Democratic wave is coming, nor would a Handel win mean that Democrats will come up short in 2018. That’s because of all the unusual aspects of this special election in particular and all special elections more broadly.

To us, the only thing that would be truly surprising is if the margin of victory falls outside of a close range — say, if it’s bigger than five points (larger than a 52.5% showing by the winner in the two-way runoff). If that happens, perhaps there may be something larger to take from the outcome. But even then, be cautious about projecting the outcome of this race on to others.

However, this race does seem more important than the two previously contested House special elections featuring candidates from both parties, KS-4 and MT-AL. In those two races, Republicans won but with far reduced margins from President Trump’s victories in those deeply red districts last year, providing Democrats with moral, but not actual, victories (a third special House election, in deeply blue CA-34, came down to a Democrat vs. a Democrat in the final round of voting and thus isn’t really comparable to the others). National Democrats did not spend extraordinarily in the Montana and Kansas races because those are seats that are redder than the ones they plan to target next year.

GA-6 is different: While it typically is far right of the national political center, Trump dramatically underperformed usual GOP showings there: He only won the district by a point and a half, making it only a few points more Republican than last year’s national popular vote (Hillary Clinton by two points). This is a district that Democrats very well could win going forward if Ossoff does in fact triumph next week, perhaps making it a valuable piece of their efforts to net the 24 seats they need to win the House back next year. It would also provide some evidence that other Democrats can match or exceed Clinton’s showing in some affluent, well-educated districts that didn’t like Trump but are otherwise deeply Republican, albeit with some caveats (for one, GA-6 is an open seat and many Democratic targets will feature entrenched incumbents next year, and incumbents often get a bonus of a few points).

Meanwhile, if Handel wins, Republicans can credibly say that they’ve blocked the Democrats, at least for the time being, in a district that resembles other likely Democratic targets, pulling off that feat against a candidate in Ossoff who is probably the most successful House fundraiser of all time in an open seat contested in a bad GOP environment.

Looking ahead to the 2018 general election in this district, our intention, subject to change depending on the actual results, is to shift the rating in GA-6 to lean toward whomever ends up winning it. The candidate who emerges from this showdown will have the power of incumbency and probably deserves the benefit of the doubt going forward, but the district now seems divided enough that there’s a decent chance of a competitive redux next fall.

A quick word on SC-5

Next Tuesday also features a House special election in SC-5, the district vacated by now-Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney (R). Long-time Rep. John Spratt (D) held the district for nearly three decades despite its right-of-center presidential lean before he fell to Mulvaney in the 2010 GOP wave. Indeed, the steady extinction of Democrats like Spratt who represented conservative Southern districts over the past few decades is a key factor in why the Democrats have only held the House for four years since 1994 after dominating it for 60 of the 64 years prior to that.

Former state Rep. Ralph Norman (R), who won a bruising primary runoff, is a clear favorite against Archie Parnell (D), a former Goldman Sachs tax adviser. With GA-6 raging in a district that is far more competitive at the presidential level than this one, both national parties have largely stayed out, although the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recently made a small, six-figure investment.

Like in GA-6 and the other specials, it’ll be interesting to see by how much (or if at all) Parnell runs ahead of Clinton’s 2016 showing (she lost the district by 19 points last year). We’re calling it Likely Republican, but an upset would be stunning.