Georgia Eve: Preview From Ground Zero!

In some ways, it’s very fitting that tomorrow’s senate runoff elections and Wednesday’s counting of the electoral votes more or less coincide with the rollout of the Covid-19 vaccination, as each initiates the new year with symbols of hope to move on (finally) from the twin maladies that dominated (and decimated) 2020. On the one hand, the country has been consumed by a malignant, insidious sickness that destroyed people’s lives, preyed on the most vulnerable members of the population, and exposed layers of government corruption and impotence. And on the other hand, there was Covid-19.

Just like the revolutionary 1960’s didn’t really end until 1972, the shadow of 2020 didn’t simply disappear four nights ago with the popping of socially distanced champagne corks. Yes, we’ve hit a medical milestone with the production and dissemination of effective vaccines, but the war against the pandemic will last for months, or possibly years. And yes, we managed to vote a delusional sociopath out of office, but the election won’t really be over until tomorrow’s runoffs determine control of the Senate, and Wednesday’s meeting of Congress confirms the electoral vote. And then off course, the partisan war will continue.

In any event, it’s a big deal indeed how the runoffs go tomorrow, and readers far and wide are asking the Toteboard what the news is from the front lines. The short answer is that no one knows what's going to happen. And everyone knows that they don’t know. But here’s what we do know:


It has been pretty clear from the start that it will be turnout, not persuasion, that determines how the runoffs turn out. Because the ideological and tribal differences separating the two parties (and their respective candidates) are so profound, it’s pretty hard to imagine that there could be any voters who actually have a hard time deciding which candidates they prefer. Sure, there is the theoretical possibility that someone loathes Trumpism and supports BLM, but is reluctant to vote for a candidate who supports abortion rights, but the Toteboard isn’t convinced that a whole lot of Georgians actually fit that profile. So, the real challenge for the respective campaigns is not to convince people whom to vote for, but to convince their supporters to actually get out and vote (sorry for the split infinitive). And so far, a hell of a lot of people have done just that. The most votes ever in a previous Georgia runoff was about 2.1 million in 2008, and this time around the early voting alone has already topped 3 million. What’s more, it looks like a lot of that is tilting democratic, i.e., voters in heavily democratic districts, Black voters, young voters, which suggests that perhaps the emerging blue coalition that got their first taste of winning back in November decided they liked it and wanted more. There’s a also a sort of ass-backward way that Covid may be making voting de rigueur in early-voting neighborhoods. Because social distancing has forced voting lines out the doors and onto sidewalks and streets, voters has been completely visible in public spaces just about every day for the past month, which may passively communicate the message that voting is just something everyone does, and will continue to do. There are also perhaps 100,000 newly registered voters since November, and those may also be skewing blue. Thank you, Stacey Abrams. But will the republicans have their own surge on election day? Will their “save the country from the socialist radical liberals” message fire up the base in West Bumfuck to avenge Trump’s loss? Or will their “rigged election” rhetoric backfire on them, and convince just enough republicans to stay home when they don’t think their votes will matter anyway? To everything there is a season, and all we can do is wait and see. You might expect that Georgians are intoxicated with their new-found political relevance, but the truth is that everyone around here is seriously on edge.


So, what do the polls say? Although Georgia was one of the few states that the polls pretty much nailed in the November election, pollsters have been a little tepid about what to expect in the runoffs. Many of the high-quality canvassers have chosen to sit it out this time around, and those that are working the phones are themselves skittish about their own numbers. Presumably, this all relates back to the turnout issue, i.e., pollsters aren’t having any trouble selecting samples and locating voters, but their spotty performance over the last couple of cycles suggests that they’re having trouble selecting representative samples of likely voters, that they just don’t know how to weigh properly all the demographics – age, gender, ethnicity, religion, income, geography, education, sexuality, party affiliation, voting history – to make their surveys genuinely predictive. So yes, maybe in a sample of a thousand likely voters, they were able to survey one well-educated Black Jewish republican transgender lesbian from the rural North who votes half the time, but then they have to figure out how to weigh her with respect to the different demographics she cuts across. That said, the stripped-down polls we do have are telling us the same thing we’ve all known for two months: the races look close, but turnout is the independent variable. The latest batches show a very slight tilt toward the democrats, but these are from pollsters that have sketchier track records or are unknown quantities. The races could indeed be nail-biters, or they could be decided by seven points either way. And neither outcome would be a total surprise.


One thing that does seem pretty clear is that the two races are likely to go the same way, either both blue or both red. Although Nate Silver wrote just a few days ago that a split decision isn’t all that crazy a scenario, the polls have been tracking the races as so tightly correlated to each other that the split could probably only happen if both contests are decided by razor thin margins. And both camps seem to be just fine with this, as each is putting up a united front, with joint outreach to their main constituencies. On the one hand, Ossoff and Warnock are presenting themselves as comrades in arms (Warnock has actually taken to referring to Ossoff as his “brother” on the campaign trail), fighting together against racial and economic injustice, and vowing to treat the pandemic as a challenge for responsible government, not as an occasion for shady profit-seeking. On the other hand, Perdue and Loeffler are running as the last line of defense against Che Guevara becoming the next secretary of state, while trying to humanize themselves through contrived “pulled themselves up by their own jockstrap” biographies. So might anyone actually split their vote? Might some voters pull the lever for Ossoff and Loeffler, or Perdue and Warnock? Well, just as tribal loyalties are likely to play at least as large a role as ideology and candidate resumés in determining how these races turn out – it’s hardly insignificant that the Toteboard didn’t even get around to mentioning any specific candidate by name until now – those same tribal tensions and resentments could cause some trouble in closely decided races. More specifically, there’s always the possibility that racism and/or anti-Semitism could rear their ugly heads, and drain just enough votes from Warnock and/or Ossoff respectively. Is it really that hard to imagine someone voting for Ossoff, but skipping the special election because he or she was spooked by the specter of an angry Black revolutionary in the senate? Or voting for Warnock, but thinking maybe those Jews already wield too much power in Washington? It would of course be pretty terrible if this happened at any significant scale, but the Toteboard would be especially disappointed, and depressed, if such a denouement were in any way propelled by the remaining pockets of Jewish racism or Black anti-Semitism. Let’s all really hope it doesn’t come to this, or come anywhere near this. Ossoff and Warnock make an inspiring team, and they together may symbolize a creative new stage of the important historic partnership between Jews and African-Americans. A shared victory might accomplish well more than just flipping the Senate.


OK, so when Tuesday night rolls around, we again have to ask what are we going to know, and when are we going to know it? And once again, we have to admit that we don’t really have an answer. As you may recall from the November election, Georgia was one of those states that allows processing absentee and early ballots before election day itself, and so there was much hope that Georgia would count its votes efficiently and have enough of them in place for a call to be made by 11:00. And as you also may recall, it didn’t quite happen that way. There were slow-counting districts – some because of unexpectedly high turnout, others due to one technical glitch or another – and then all those provisional, late-arriving absentee, military, and overseas ballots, and it was days before the networks made their calls. Of course, there’s no reason to think that this will happen again . . . but there’s really no reason to think that it won’t either. And that’s not even considering the days or weeks of litigation that are almost certainly promised to follow. The key is to watch results with an ear to context, which the news outlets may or may not be providing. Where are the tallied votes coming from? What percent of the votes in those districts do they represent? Are they early votes, election day votes, or absentee votes? How many are outstanding from each district in each of those categories? This is where FiveThirtyEight’s and Nate Cohn’s NYT live blogs can come in handy, though the latter has not announced yet whether or not he is employing his “Needle” for the runoffs. And watch for whatever tea leaves you can read, e.g., any reports of candidates overperforming in one region, or turnout being surprisingly low in another, or early voting skewed more than expected. These are all hints to how the overall narrative may be shaping up. But if you really want the Toteboard’s advice? Find some family games, and play them. Via Zoom, if necessary. At least some of us will be playing Code Names, but the Toteboard may find some time here and there to send updates through email blasts. Sit tight!

PS: The Toteboard would STILL like to hear from you! Here is your chance to get into the prognostication game. Who do YOU think will be the democratic and republican nominees for president in 2024? Of course, the Toteboard has its own ideas, but it might be fun to hear what everyone else is thinking. Send your predictions to the Toteboard sometime between now and Biden’s inauguration, and we’ll announce the results shortly thereafter. And by the way, whoever gets it correct will win the prize of Lifetime Gratification.