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Georgia Runoff: What a Walker or Warnock Victory Would Look Like

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Voters stand in a line that stretches off into the distance at an early voting polling place in Atlanta on Friday, Dec. 2, 2022. (Dustin Chambers/New York Times)

Voters stand in a line that stretches off into the distance at an early voting polling place in Atlanta on Friday, Dec. 2, 2022. (Dustin Chambers/New York Times)

Maybe it’s because I’m a former high school debater, but every few weeks I try to go through the mental exercise of imagining what I would write the day after an election — if either side won.

It can be an illuminating exercise. I did this every few weeks before the 2016 general election, and I was always struck by how easy it was to write a plausible post-election story explaining how and why Donald Trump would win the election. This year, it was also fairly easy to imagine how Democrats would fare well. In each case, it made it straightforward to explain the eventual result, even though each case seemed less likely than not.

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Today’s Georgia runoff is a very different case. The election seems about as close — or even closer — than those other contests. But if the Republican Herschel Walker wins, I don’t know how I would explain it. I would have to shrug my shoulders.

Of course, that doesn’t mean he can’t win. Surprises happen. Sometimes, a football team with a great record loses to a team that hasn’t won a single game, even though there’s no good reason to expect it.

And in some ways, a “surprise” in the runoff wouldn’t take anything especially unusual. The polls show a close race, with the incumbent Democrat, Raphael Warnock, leading by about 3 percentage points. Similarly, Walker trailed by less than 1 percentage point in the Nov. 8 election results, and historically, the runoff electorate has sometimes been more conservative. By those measures, it wouldn’t take much at all for Walker to win.

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But it’s hard to come up with good reasons that Walker would do better in the runoff than he did a month ago, even if on any given Tuesday any candidate can win.

The core issue for Walker is simple: He is a flawed and unpopular candidate, while Warnock, by contrast, is fairly popular. And unlike in the November election, the two are the only candidates on the ballot in most of the state. This poses a much greater challenge to Walker in the runoff election than it did in the general election.

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It’s easy to imagine several kinds of voters who backed Walker in November but who won’t be showing up this time. There’s the Republican who didn’t like Walker, but who showed up to vote for another Republican — like Brian Kemp in the governor’s race. There’s the Republican who might grudgingly vote for Walker if the Senate were on the line — as it appeared to be in November — but doesn’t think the stakes are high enough to support someone who 57% of voters said does not have strong moral values, according to the AP VoteCast survey.

Worse for Walker, there’s reason to think these challenges have gotten worse since the Nov. 8 election. Warnock has outspent him by a wide margin on television. The polls now show Warnock doing even better than in the pre-election polls in November.

The final turnout data from the November election also raises the possibility that it will be challenging for Walker to enjoy a more favorable turnout than he did last month. Turnout among previous Republican primary voters outpaced Democratic turnout, in no small part because the Black share of the electorate dipped to its lowest level since 2006. Indeed, Republican candidates won the most votes for U.S. House and the other statewide offices.

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In other words, there’s an argument that the electorate last month represented something more like a best-case scenario for Walker in a high-turnout election. He still didn’t win. Conversely, the early voting estimates raise the possibility that there’s some considerable upside for Warnock if the electorate looks a bit more like the ones in recent cycles. According to our estimates, the electorate is arguably consistent with one that’s a few points better for Democrats than in November.

Despite a curtailed early voting window, nearly 2 million Georgia voters cast ballots ahead of Tuesday’s election. By our estimates, Warnock won these voters in November, 59-41, probably giving him a lead of nearly 400,000 votes.

Black voters represented 32% of the early vote, up from 29% in November.

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But it’s hard to read too much into the early voting numbers. The restricted one-week voting period makes it impossible to directly compare the results with those of prior years. And there’s not any hard, factual basis to assert that Walker can’t overcome his deficit on Election Day.

In fact, early voting and Election Day results are highly correlated — in the opposite direction. The better a party does in early voting, the worse it does on Election Day. But there’s no doubt that these numbers surpass any reasonable set of expectations that Democrats might have had. To the extent it offers any signal, it’s a good one for Warnock.

The race may be close, but it’s hard to think of a good signal for Walker.

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