What the Georgia Runoff Told Us

Tuesday night was Election Runoff Night in Georgia. The results give some hope – and some concern – to both parties.

For the Republicans, victory was sweet for Brad Raffensperger, who held off a strong challenge from Democrat John Barrow to win the Secretary of State position. For Democrats upset at how Raffensperger’s predecessor (Governor-Elect Brian Kemp) handled the job, the defeat was bitter.

That said, it wasn’t all good news for the GOP. Republicans usually do better in runoffs than on Election Day in Georgia, and this was no exception. However, Barrow’s margin of defeat was more than a percentage point less than Clinton’s in 2016.

If the Democratic nominee in 2020 merely repeats that one-percent-plus improvement across the nation, then Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and the presidency goes to them – while Florida would be close enough for another of those hand recounts. If Republicans were hoping this election showed a post-midterm return to normal for them, they’re in for a disappointment.

For the Democrats, the loss was painful, but instructive. Barrow, a former Congressman from east Georgia, actually outdid his former running mate Stacey Abrams in rural vote share, but he underperformed in the Atlanta suburbs. Gwinnett County, which went to Abrams by more than 12 points, went for Barrow by barely more than one. Cobb County actually flipped back to the GOP (Abrams won it by nearly 10 points).

Then there was turnout, which wasn’t even 40% of what was seen on Election Day.

Now that we have Barrow’s defeat to add to the story, some things stand out.

First, Stacey Abrams was a better candidate than initially recognized. Conventional wisdom says Barrow, a white male with rural ties, should have done far better than Abrams. He didn’t – even on Election Day it was the performance of the Libertarian in his race that forced the runoff; his share of the vote was lower than Abrams’ share up-ballot. The fact that the Georgia Chamber of Commerce stayed neutral in the race should have been a clue. As it is, now we have some data behind it.

Secondly, the suburbs matter everywhere. Even GOP-leaning states saw their suburban areas pull away from them. They just had enough rural voters to make up the difference. In Georgia, though, they managed to stem some of their losses here, which was enough to counter a weaker rural presence against Barrow. Democrats clearly saw that appealing to rural voters at the expense of the suburbs has consequences – and not good ones.

Finally, African-American candidates help Democrats. One could call Georgia 2018 a microcosm of the Obama 2012 to Clinton 2016 turnout effect. African-American turnout fell from 2012 levels, enough not just to lower Clinton’s popular vote margin but also to turn the Electoral College against her. Now, we saw an African-American “progressive” (I use the quotes because what most conservatives think a “progressive” is and a candidate who doesn’t earn the opprobrium of the local Chamber of Commerce are two very different things) still do better in Georgia than a moderate white ex-Congressman.

I don’t think it’s just about turnout, though. Democrats are caught in an argument about how to rebuild their coalition. Do they attempt to win back “white working class” voters in rural areas? Or do they look to growing their already large margins about racial minorities and younger voters?

For yours truly, neither is as important as winning over center-right independents and moderate Republicans who stuck to Trump in the hope of getting a standard Republican administration and are struck with horror at the rampant trade warrior instead. Those voters are far less likely to cross over to a Democratic Party trying to outdo Trump on protectionism or isolationism – the kinds of things that obsess Democrats worried about “white working class” voters.

It might just be that African-American, Hispanic, or other non-white Democrats – who are spared the advice about “white working class” voters because (1) too many people shallowly assume they can’t win those voters over or (2) many assume that said voters also have serious racial animus behind their support for Trump – can spend more time appealing to supporters for freer trade and genuine internationalism. Whether those candidates themselves appreciate that in 2020, of course, remains to be seen.

In short, Republicans have reasons to be happy and worried, while Democrats have reasons to be frustrated just hopeful, about the elections to come over the next two years.