So, who is going to win the Georgia senate runoff?
Well, no one really knows, not even the Toteboard. (You can stop reading if you were hoping this post would give you the answer.)
But one thing is pretty certain. The question looming in the background of all this is whether or not Georgia really has become a purple state. The answer to that will probably determine the results of this Tuesday’s election and, conversely, the results of this election will go a long way toward telling us the answer to that question.
THE COLOR PURPLE:
As common as the “purple state” lexicon is these days, it’s easy to forget that the term has really only been in vogue for about two decades, i.e., since the aftermath of the close and controversial 2000 Bush/Gore election. Of course, it does not represent an entirely new concept, as it is more or less heir to the earlier notions of “swing states,” “battleground states,” and (most quaintly) “bellwethers.” But we hear a lot more today than we used to about these contested target states, and it’s not only because of the way networks started color-coding on election nights. The more significant reason is to be found (as always) in presidential electoral history.
If we look at the seven presidential elections from 1972 through 1996, the one thing that all but one of them have in common is that they were decided by wide popular vote margins, and even wider electoral vote margins. What’s more, two of those elections were bona fide landslides, with Nixon tromping McGovern in 1972 by better than 23% of the popular vote, and Reagan similarly drubbing Mondale in 1984 by better than 18%. In fact, this has really been the pattern pretty much since the end of the Gilded Age. In the century-long stretch from 1896 through 1996, only four of the twenty-six elections were settled by less than 4% of the popular vote, and an eye-popping eleven of them were decided by 14% or more. To put it plainly, elections seldom used to be close, and the landslides could favor either party, though seven of the eleven in that hundred-year span went to the republicans.
As a consequence, “swing states” were seldom that important. The contested states didn’t usually matter in the final tally, as the results were already well determined without them. When Mondale was hopelessly behind in 1984, he spent his final days campaigning in what he saw as the best available big state that might go either way, i.e., New York, not because it would make a difference in who won the election, but because he hoped it might make his humiliation just a little less humiliating (though he might have had better luck going after Maryland, Massachusetts, or Rhode Island). But again, none of the states that one could arguably regard as a legitimate 1984 battleground mattered in the long run.
All of this changed, and changed big, with the election of 2000. In the six elections since then, five have been decided by popular vote margins of less than 5%, and four of those were decided by less than 4%. And we all know that on two of those occasions, the winners actually lost the popular vote. More importantly, the winner of each of those close five contests had an electoral vote “cushion” of no more than three “extra” states beyond the tipping point (Bush 43 actually no cushion at all in 2000). In other words, the country has become so evenly divided, and the red and blue bases have become so clearly defined since the Clinton era, that every election has been fought primarily in the few remaining purple states, whichever ones they may be as the national demographics shift subtly (or not) over time. And so all of a sudden, it really matters whether or not a state is purple. And with close presidential elections and an evenly divided senate and house, it really, really matters.
SEEING PURPLE COWS:
The Toteboard first identified the “Purple Seven” in the lead-up to Obama’s first victory in 2008, though it shortly thereafter trimmed it to the “Purple Six.” By the time Hillary ran against Trump in 2016, it looked like we had a fairly stable narrative. The democrats had a solid base (i.e., states that went blue in at least five of the six previous presidential elections) of twenty-one states (and DC), totaling 257 electoral votes, with a half-dozen others totaling 90 electoral votes up for grabs: Colorado, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia. The Purple Six were further subdivided into the Indigo Three (the democratic leaning CO, NV, and VA), the Big Kahunas (the substantial prizes of FL and OH), and the Burgundy One (the republican leaning NC). For the time being, it appeared that this map would favor the democrats, as it seemed to offer them more possible paths to victory. And as you may recall, Hillary did win the Indigo Three, which was supposed to be enough to put her over the top, but she also narrowly lost four key states from her theoretical base (IA, PA, MI, and WI), shocking the pigmentation of the national electoral map and beginning a national nightmare (that’s another story).
If you’re getting the feeling that presidential elections have been playing out, and will continue to play out, like a bit of a mathematical puzzle, you wouldn’t be too far off. Maybe we can add the Indigo Three to the democratic base, but then we have to subtract the four states Clinton couldn’t hold, which is a net loss. And they’re not going to make up that loss with either of the Big Kahunas or the Burgundy North Carolina, all of which have reddened considerably in the last decade. But just as the democrats have had part of their blue base chip off into that purple no-man’s-land, the republicans have had to deal with similar losses (or are struggling to prevent similar losses) in theirs. And that’s where Arizona and Georgia fit into the puzzle. As the “new purples,” these two states have already exercised outsized influence on the last presidential election and the last two senate cycles. But is that for real? That is what’s being put to the test this Tuesday
ORBITS AND EPICYCLES:
In his widely influential opus The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn demonstrated that scientific knowledge does not progress over time in a linear or cumulative manner, but rather advances in fits and starts, with both occasional steps backward and radical moves forward. Kuhn observed that any scientific community, broadly construed, operates under a shared paradigm, a comprehensive system that includes not only working technical hypotheses and frameworks for interpreting data, but also an understanding of what new avenues are worth exploring and what projects are deserving of institutional sponsorship. However, the scientists invariably encounter anomalies, i.e., newly discovered data that do not seem to be explainable within the existing system. The most famous example of this was when pre-Copernican astronomers, operating under their assumption of a geocentric universe, began to encounter heavenly bodies (like Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) that just did not appear to be orbiting the Earth. But rather than throw out everything they (thought they) knew about astronomy and start from scratch, the Ptolemaic star-gazers explained away these anomalies by positing that these oddball planets moved in “epicycles,” i.e., in orbits around other flexible points that themselves actually orbit the Earth. As they encountered still more perplexing data, they refined this interpretation in increasingly creative and contortionist ways, until the center could simply no longer hold, necessitating the eventual paradigm shift, a radical break to a new set of working assumptions and interpretive frameworks. Historically, such shifts never happen quickly. It may take decades, or even centuries, before the scientific community as a whole is really ready to redefine their own discipline.
And just in case you were wondering, yes, Thomas Kuhn did in fact coin the term “paradigm shift,” a phrase that is now regularly applied to everything from business models and pedagogical strategies, to approaches to cuisine, music, and even vacation itineraries.
Bringing this all back to politics, the question here is whether recent democratic victories in Georgia indicate a real Kuhnian paradigm shift from red to purple state, or if those wins were simply explainable anomalies in a state that has been, and will be continue to be, red. The case can be made either way, and the runoff may well show which is the better argument.
THE RED BLOOD REIGNS IN THE WINTER’S PALE:
How red is Georgia? Well, until Biden, Ossoff, and Warnock all broke through two years ago, Georgia had not elected a democrat to a state-wide office since 2002, and it has yet to elect one since. The state is enduring its third consecutive two-term republican governor, and last month voted in an entirely republican slate up and down the ballot, including the lieutenant governor (an avid election-denier and conspiracy theorist), secretary of state, attorney general, and superintendent of schools, all by about the same comfortable margin.
As for the democratic victories two years ago, those can pretty much all be explained by poor republican opposition. One could make the case that the only reason Biden won – and just barely, at that – was that independents and suburban voters who might normally have voted for any generic republican with fewer than three heads just couldn’t stomach Trump anymore. And the republican senate candidates had their peccadilloes too. The colorless seat-warmer Kelly Loeffler was basically a pawn, first by Kemp, to try to appeal to moderate suburban women, and then by her own handlers when she drew a Trumpian challenge in the primary and lurched mindlessly to the right. By the time she showed up for a debate shortly before the runoff, she came off as a programmed automaton, barely fluent in matters of policy, and tonelessly reciting the words “radical socialist Raphael Warnock” every forty-five seconds or so. On the other hand, the Trump cheerleader David Purdue was simply an asshole from the beginning, and he couldn't camouflage his ill-tempered persona when his upstart boychik challenger got under his skin with accusations of financial impropriety. But even after all that, it is still entirely possible that those two republican bozos might have won their respective runoffs, if Trump had only stopped yammering on about rigged elections and dissuading rural Kool-aid guzzlers from turning out to vote. If you eliminate the crazy factor – which is indeed substantial – Georgia’s natural inertia may really be toward the republicans.
And there’s probably no better evidence of that than the senate election that has precipitated this runoff. If a confused, inarticulate, morally degenerate Herschel Walker – Herschel Walker, for crying out loud! – can muster almost 49% of the vote, that has to be as low as the republicans can ever sink. And if that’s the absolute republican floor, if that’s the worst a republican can do when there’s a perfect storm conspiring against his candidacy, well, that dynamic doth not normally a purple state make.
THE PURPLE TESTAMENT OF BLEEDING WAR:
But wait, not so fast. One can also explain the Biden/Ossoff/Warnock victories as the legitimate culmination of forces that had been building for years. When the republicans took over Georgia politics back in 2002, after the gradual disappearance of post-LBJ yellow-dog democrats, much of the state’s progressive population was feeling pretty demoralized and saw little hope for revitalization in the future. When a pair of potentially strong and well-funded candidates – Michelle Nunn and Jason Carter – flamed out in 2014, it especially looked like the republican hegemony was here to stay. But political analysts kept pointing to the sleeping giant of Black and other minority voters who had not yet flexed their political muscle, as well as the influx of younger, educated, racially diverse voters in the expanding Atlanta metro area, who together could potentially form the vanguard of an emerging new democratic coalition. Enter Stacey Abrams, who had the skills to unite and fire up that coalition, by forcefully articulating democratic principles, registering new voters, bringing people of color into more critical and more visible party roles, and building a sophisticated turnout operation. Most importantly, this was not a case of “one and done.” Biden’s seemingly improbable victory in 2020, only the second time a democrat carried the state since favorite son Jimmy Carter did so in 1980, was merely the beginning. Although the runoffs had originally been designed to disenfranchise Black voters, the heavily Black Fulton and DeKalb counties were literally coursing with excitement in the run-up to the runoffs, as huge signs redundantly exhorted their citizens to “VOTE ONE MORE TIME!” And indeed, the very coalition that had historically been shut out of runoff elections came out in force and propelled Warnock and his brother-from-another-mother Ossoff into the senate. Two years later, that same coalition almost reelected Warnock without a runoff, but seems to be in full gear once again, breaking early turnout records.
So how does the “Purple Georgia” paradigm explain all of the state-wide losses this year? Well first of all, identifying a state as purple doesn’t necessarily mean every election will be a tossup, or will even be close; it means that either party has the potential to win particular races, if they happen to be situated with the right combination of candidates, timing, political mood, economic conditions, and so forth. But Georgia republicans had the wind at their backs in 2022, as it’s generally hard to beat scandal-free incumbents in even indigo-ish purple states (just ask the good people of Wisconsin), and Kemp (and secretary of state Raffensperger) did manage to keep their noses clean and could even boast that they resisted Trump’s attempts at electoral coercion. Now admittedly, choosing not to violate the Constitution is a pretty low threshold to clear on the integrity meter, but these are strange times and even a modest burst of honesty can distinguish an individual republican from the rest of the herd. Kemp also wasn’t shy about using the power of his incumbency to score public relations points and hand out well-timed goodies to key constituents (like an extended repeal of the state gas tax). Throw in low unemployment, new businesses coming to the state, and an unpopular democratic president, and it makes sense that this would be a republican year in Georgia.
Finally, what to make of a bottom-of-the-barrel candidate like Herschel Walker managing 48% of the vote and threatening to win the runoff? The key here is that Georgia is not only evenly divided, it’s also one of the most inelastic states in the country. So yes, it’s probably a given that republicans currently have a floor of about 48 or 49% of the vote, which on the surface can sound pretty alarming. But it’s equally important to note that they also have a ceiling of no more than about 53%, maybe 54%, of the vote, which is all Kemp could manage despite his incumbency, pandering, patronage, and supposed popularity. His minions, many of whom were also incumbents, actually performed about the same or worse, averaging about 52% in their respective races. That’s not exactly a formula for red dominance.
RUNNING INTO THE RUNOFF:
And so, Tuesday will prove to be an important test of exactly how we should pigment Georgia for future elections. Unlike the case in 2020, the 2022 Georgia runoff will not determine control of the senate, thank you Jesus. But there is still a lot at stake, especially the following:
It would be an incredibly sad statement about our country if a depraved simpleton somehow manages to gain a seat in the senate for the next six years. And it would be absolutely mortifying to be a resident of the state that sent him there. Isn’t one Marjorie Taylor Greene enough?
It’s really important for legislation, allocation of funds, and court appointments to give Biden a more comfortable senate cushion for the next two years, even if it’s only by one more seat. It would also be really nice if Joe Manchin no longer has the ability to pretend he’s co-president.
The 2024 elections are just around the corner, and the map looks about as shitty for the democrats as it has ever looked. They will be defending seats in no fewer than three very red states (Montana, Ohio, West Virginia) and five purplish states (Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin), and at the moment have no realistic republican seats to target. Any extra margin before they have to play defense could be significant.
And so, if you live in Georgia, make sure to get out and vote. If you don't live there, this might be a good time to call your Georgia friends and remind them to get out and vote. And no matter where you are, start thinking a lot of good thoughts. That’s what the Toteboard will be doing.