More than 1.6 million voters cast ballots in the first week of early voting in Georgia’s two Senate runoff elections, a turnout rate that is unusually high for runoff contests and on par with the participation seen in November’s general election.
The numbers so far — which far exceed the state’s last Senate runoff in 2008 — suggest that voters are eager to have a say in statewide races with major national implications. And a closer look at who voted in the first week of early voting shows bright spots — and areas of concern — for both parties in what are widely expected to be close elections that will determine control of the Senate.
Republicans only need to win one of the races — between GOP Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, and their Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock — to retain control of the Senate. Democrats need to win both for majority control of the upper chamber.
Control of both chambers of Congress would allow President-elect Joe Biden to more easily enact his agenda on the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, criminal justice reform, and other issues.
The turnout rate could still drop between now and when polls close on Jan. 5, especially if fewer people show up to vote in person than did on Election Day in November. So far, of the 1.6 million early votes, 1 million were cast in person, and the rest — 621,098 — were mailed in, according to the latest state voting data.
Still, the early turnout numbers suggest there will be much more participation in the runoffs this year compared to Georgia’s last Senate runoff, in 2008, which saw a nearly 50 percent drop in participation from the general election. In that race, the Republican incumbent, Saxby Chambliss, won the runoff by almost 15 points.
“In the past, Republicans have kind of run away with runoffs. This time I think it’s going to be a lot closer,” said Jason Shepherd, the Republican chair of Cobb County, a right-leaning suburban area outside of Atlanta.
So far, according to state voting data compiled by the website georgiavotes.com, 68.4 percent of voters who have cast ballots are aged 50 or older — a demographic that tends to skew more conservative and favors Republicans.
That is a large increase from the November election, when 52 percent of voters in Georgia were 50 or older, according to AP’s VoteCast survey.
Nationally, President Donald Trump won 51 percent of voters aged 50-64, as well as 51 percent of the over-65 vote. And Trump did slightly better with both groups in Georgia: 55 percent of voters aged 50-64 and 55 percent of voters 65 and older backed Trump over Biden.
If that trend carries over to the runoff elections, where the electorate so far includes a large number of older voters, it would boost Perdue and Loeffler’s chances of winning.
Other early indicators would seem to favor Democrats, however.
In the November election, 64 percent of Georgia’s voters were white. So far in the runoffs, the share of white voters is down to 54.3 percent.
The rise in Black and Latino voters participating in the runoffs is a good sign for Ossoff and Warnock. In November, 92 percent of Black voters in Georgia backed Biden, and 59 percent of Latinos in the state supported the president-elect.
Biden won Georgia thanks to support from voters of color as well as white suburban voters, who turned out in large numbers to block Trump from winning a second term. Biden became the first Democratic presidential nominee to carry Georgia since Bill Clinton in 1992.
Trump’s narrow loss in Georgia and the prospect of controlling the Senate is driving Democrats to return to the polls for the runoffs, said Tharon Johnson, an Atlanta-based Democratic consultant.
“I think it’s very realistic” that both Ossoff and Warnock could win, Johnson said. “If Trump’s coattails were so broad and robust he would have won Georgia” and Loeffler and Perdue would have cleared the 50 percent margin to avoid runoffs, he added.
In the general election Biden also benefited from a surge in early in-person voting from Democrats and record vote-by-mail turnout in Georgia and other battleground states. Voters who cast ballots by mail leaned Democratic, while voters who chose to vote in person on Election Day leaned Republican.
So far, more than 2.3 million people have submitted applications to vote by mail in Georgia, down only 4 percent from the number of mail ballot applications at this point in the run-up to the general election.
More than 132,000 people who did not vote in the general election requested mail-in ballot applications. The surge is another sign of the high level of turnout in the election, but without information on the applicants’ party preferences it’s unclear who the new voters are more likely to support.
Overall, 68 percent of voters who applied for mail-in ballots were 50 or older, and 54 percent of those requesting mail-in ballots were white, according to georgiavotes.com. If those groups skew Republican as they did in the general election, it would spell trouble for Democrats counting on winning mail-in votes by a wide margin.
Democrats will need to keep early voting turnout high — both in person and by mail — in order to counteract what is expected to be a surge in Republican turnout on Jan. 5.
Biden campaigned in Georgia last week, and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris visited the state Monday to drum up enthusiasm for the Democratic candidates. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have also traveled to Georgia in recent weeks to stump for the GOP candidates.
The campaigns and outside political groups are flooding the state with ads, with more than $450 million spent so far on political advertising for these two races.
Trump has complicated the Republican Party’s messaging around the runoffs by refusing to concede in his own election, which he lost in November. Trump has claimed there was voter fraud in Georgia and other battleground states that Biden won, though there is no evidence of that.
The president has also criticized Georgia’s Republican Gov. Brain Kemp and the GOP secretary of state for refusing to back his efforts to overturn Biden’s victory in the state. Georgia certified the results of the general election after conducting a hand recount last month.
After the general election, there was concern among Republican officials in Georgia that Trump’s claims of a rigged election would suppress GOP turnout in the runoffs. Two attorneys backing Trump told supporters at a campaign event Dec. 2 not to vote unless there was proof the election would be secure.
But Trump has since urged supporters to vote, and Republicans said he remains the most powerful voice in the party.
“Trump supporters are going to listen to President Trump more than they’re going to listen to any other surrogates,” Shepherd said.