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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Pundits Offer Cautious Optimism for Ossoff in GA-6 Special Election

Regarding the much-discussed special election today for the GA-6 congressional district, Nate Silver writes at fivethirtyeight.com:

If the polls are right, then Democrat Jon Ossoff will receive by far the most votes in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, which is holding a special election to replace former U.S. Rep. Tom Price on Tuesday.1 But Ossoff will probably finish with less than 50 percent of the vote, which would trigger a runoff between him and the next-highest finisher — most likely the Republican Karen Handel, but possibly one of three other Republicans (Bob Gray, Dan Moody Judson Hill) who are closely bunched behind her in polls.

Furthermore, the combined vote for all Republican candidates will probably exceed the combined vote for Ossoff and other Democrats, although it should be close. And the district has historically been Republican-leaning, although it was much less so in the 2016 election than it had been previously. All of this makes for a fairly confusing set of circumstances and a hard-to-forecast outcome.

Silver then crunches numbers, poll averages. regressions, aggregate party margins etc. and comes up with a formula that yields the result of Ossoff winning a runoff by 4 percent. However, Silver cautions that the partisan voting index favors Republicans and his calculations include a large margin of error (“about 8 percentage points for projecting one candidate’s vote share in the runoff, or 16 percentage points (!) for projecting the margin between the candidates”).

Apply these principles to the Georgia 6 race, and you’ll conclude that Tuesday night’s first round won’t actually resolve that much — unless Ossoff hits 50 percent of the vote and averts the runoff entirely. (That’s an unlikely but hardly impossible scenario given the fairly high error margins of polls under these circumstances.) Even if Ossoff finishes in the low 40s, it will be hard to rule him out in the second round provided that he still finishes in first place by a comfortable margin…An Ossoff win would unambiguously be good news for Democrats. But a narrow loss could be anywhere from disappointing to encouraging for them, depending on the margin and whether you think 2016 represented the new normal in the district. If judged by its 2012 results, merely coming within single digits in Georgia 6 would count as a decent result for Democrats, as was the case in a special election in the Kansas’s 4th Congressional District last week.

But Democrats will like Silver’s conclusion:

As of Sunday evening, betting markets gave Ossoff about a 40 percent chanceof eventually being the next member of Congress from Georgia 6, whether by winning a majority of the vote on Tuesday or prevailing in the June runoff. While that isn’t a ridiculous assessment, it looks too pessimistic on Ossoff. If the polls are right, the outcome of a runoff is more like a true 50-50 proposition — plus, there’s an outside chance that Ossoff could win outright on Tuesday…But I generally think the conventional wisdom has been too slow to catch upwith the fact that midterm and off-year elections are often problematic for the president’s party, and especially when the president is as unpopular as Trump. What might seem like an extraordinary feat — Democrats flipping Gingrich’s old seat — is going to be more commonplace in an environment like this one.

At Sabato’s Crystal Ball, Kyle Kondik observes,

We’re calling GA-6 a Toss-up, a designation we applied to the race roughly two weeks ago after the National Republican Congressional Committee sounded the alarm bell and started aggressively spending money in the district. That’s in addition to the millions the Congressional Leadership Fund, a Super PAC that is close to Speaker Ryan, has also spent in the district. Since then, Ossoff’s huge fundraising has come to light, as have early voting statistics that seem to indicate heavy Democratic interest in the race (although Republicans, who have more candidate choices and thus perhaps waited longer to vote, are catching up).

So there’s a lot of uncertainty about the outcome: Polling, typically spotty in House races, generally shows Ossoff in the low 40s. If that’s all he gets in the first round of voting, and the combined Republican vote is over 50%, one would assume that Ossoff’s general election opponent would start with the upper hand: After all, the first round results are better than any poll — they are actual voting results that can be a preview of the runoff on June 20, if there is one. However, if Ossoff’s vote and the scattered votes for the four other Democratic candidates add up to a total approaching 50% (say, 45% or more), it may indicate that the runoff should be quite competitive. Obviously, a first-round win by Ossoff would be noteworthy because he would have exceeded Clinton’s 46.8% 2016 share significantly — and blown recent previous Democratic House performance in the district out of the water. Another factor: As of now, Ossoff and Democrats have not been attacking the Republicans because it’s anyone’s guess how the first round will play out, while outside GOP groups have been hammering Ossoff, hoping to drive down his numbers (and while Ossoff has been running lots of positive ads on his own behalf). Ossoff and national Democrats may be preparing to drop the hammer on whichever Republican emerges from the first round, again assuming Ossoff does not win outright on Tuesday. In other words, the dynamic changes on Tuesday in advance of a possible runoff: The GOP survivor goes from running against his or her fellow partisans to running against Ossoff, while Ossoff can shift into attack mode because he would have a clear opponent.

HuffPo poll wonks Ariel Edwards-Levy and Grace Sparks note,

HuffPost Pollster’s average puts Ossoff at just below 43 percent, with surveys from both parties this month giving him a share of the vote ranging from 39 to 45 percent. As Enten notes, even with undecided voters proportionately allocated between the candidates, that leaves him several points shy of the 50 percent needed for an outright win…

At The Upshot, Nate Cohn warns:

Republicans have dominated the district for a generation, but the leading Democratic candidate, Jon Ossoff, has an outside shot to win outright on Tuesday by winning more than 50 percent of the vote…It’s not clear what to expect Tuesday night, however. It’s hard to estimate how many people will vote, and the public polls are of fairly low quality. One prediction: It’s likely that the first votes counted will be misleadingly good for Mr. Ossoff…There is no reasonable way to look at the polls and conclude that Mr. Ossoff is likely to get to 50 percent. But it would not take an especially unusual polling error, at least for a special election, for him to pull it off.

Tom Baxter, one of the top political observers of Georgia politics, takes note of the 6th district’s demographic stew:

…There are some interesting aspects to the 6th. Only 13 percent of its voters are black, but Latino and Asian voters comprise 21 percent of the electorate, second only to the neighboring 7th District to the east, where the combined Latino-Asian total is over 29 percent. These are not “us” voters.

The 6th District also has the state’s highest share of residents — 21 percent — classified as “white ethnic” based on their response to Census questions. This can refer to anyone who identifies with a list of over 30 countries, very few of which are “us” countries. As a political rule of thumb it generally applies to Jews, Greeks and Italians. For a point of comparison, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s south Florida district is 27 percent white ethnic…Set aside white ethnics and you are left with only 43 percent of the district that can safely and confidently, winking at every nod, be called “us.”

I think Ossoff’s potential has been so oversold that anything shy of an outright win — which would be a stunning achievement for a Democrat in this district — will be looked on as a disappointment in some corners. But there are reasons why this could be an important election, past its short-term significance as a national bellweather.

The popular conception of what’s going on in the district is that a lot of reliably Republican voters, sort of like the ones you see in the NRCC ad, are so turned off by President Trump they are turning away from a buffet line of Republican choices to vote for a Democrat in the race to succeed Tom Price.

Some of that is going on, surely. A lot of normally Republican voters didn’t vote for Trump last November, and that’s what worries the national party most. Republican voters may also be disgusted with the Republican Congress and perhaps even Price for failing to deliver on an ObamaCare replacement. But it’s a much more difficult leap for a practiced Republican to vote for a Democrat five months after the presidential election.

 Ed Kilgore, who knows Georgia politics from the inside out, comments at New York,

If these indicators are accurate, Ossoff may have banked a majority of early votes (representing as much as a third of the total vote) and is fighting to hold off an election-day majority of Republicans. This is the same dynamic that characterized last week’s special election in Kansas, although Ossoff has resources for getting out his vote on election day that Kansas Democratic candidate Jim Thompson could have only dreamed of possessing. The other variable that separates the contests in Kansas and Georgia is that the latter does not have the former’s deep reservoirs of intensely pro-Trump rural counties. Indeed, it is the preponderance of college-educated white suburban voters who aren’t fond of Trump that made Georgia’s sixth district a Democratic target the moment Tom Price was confirmed and resigned his seat.

…Polls vary, but it appears the GOP challenger with the best chance of beating Handel is Bob Gray, a local elected official from Handel’s home base of north Fulton County (where about half the electorate resides) who is being backed by the Club for Growth and by elements of the Trump 2016 organization (Gray is going total MAGA in branding himself). If he winds up in a runoff with Ossoff, the already-high typecasting of this election as a referendum on Trump will, if possible, ascend even more.

Yes, Republicans would have nine weeks to unite before a runoff, and it’s unclear Ossoff could sustain anything like his early fundraising pace as other campaigns (such as the May 25 special election in Montana) and the soon-to-be-assembling 2018 field compete for resources. So his win-it-all-the-first-time strategy makes abundant sense…

This is likely a close race, and the large Republican field undoubtedly helps Ossoff in the first round. If Ossoff wins it all in the first round, it will be a political earthquake. The consensus is that he will at least be competitive in a runoff, and that is very good news for Democrats.

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