We have finally entered the home stretch of the long election season – or perhaps not. With the election less than a month away, television advertising for the top-of-the-ticket contests has intensified and become more aggressive. Ads for Michelle Nunn warn that her opponent does not treat employees – especially women – fairly. Nunn would be an Obama puppet according to David Perdue and his supporters suggest that her volunteer organization has sympathies for terrorists. In the gubernatorial contest, ads for Nathan Deal picture Jason Carter as a spendthrift except that he opposed the governor’s efforts to increase education spending in 2014. Carter counters that Deal ignores the average Georgian especially when it comes to supporting public education. More attacks, some funded by the candidates but others underwritten by super PACs with unrecognizable names, will dominate the airways until Election Day. With control of the US Senate at stake, Georgia is but one of almost a dozen states in which millions of dollars are being spent on campaign ads. Soon the advertising will be augmented by cascades of robo-calls and mail boxes will fill up with slick pleas for support.
After November 4, the ads and calls abruptly end, but maybe not in Georgia. We alone combine a majority vote requirement for the general election with partisan primaries. The presence of Libertarian candidates for the U.S. Senate, governor and several statewide constitutional offices creates the possibility that if the electorate divides narrowly between the Democratic and Republican nominees, a runoff from which the Libertarian is excluded may become necessary.
Statewide general election runoffs, while rare, do occur. The first ones took place in 1992 with a US Senate seat and a position on the Public Service Commission going to a runoff. More recently, Saxby Chambliss’ 2008 reelection required a runoff when he came up 9,110 votes short of a majority in the November balloting. Other runoffs decided Public Service Commission seats in 2006 and 2008. The statewide partisan runoffs and the results from both rounds of voting appear below with the percentage for the leading candidate in boldface.
Wyche Fowler (I-D) 49.2 49.4
Paul Coverdell (R) 47.7 50.6
John Frank Collins (D) 47.6 43.2
Bobby Baker ( R) 48.3 56.8
David Burgess (I-D) 48.8 47.8
Chuck Eaton ( R) 46.3 52.2
Jim Martin (D) 46.8 42.6
Saxby Chambliss (I-R) 49.8 57.4
Jim Powell (D) 47.9 43.5
Lauren McDonald (R) 47.2 56.5
The striking consistency in the five statewide partisan runoffs is that the Republican always wins! Chambliss and Bobby Baker led in the initial vote and expanded their margin in the runoff so that they won by a landslide. In the other three contests the Democrat led in the initial vote only to come up short in the runoff. Except for Wyche Fowler’s reelection bid, each Democrat polled a smaller share of the vote in the runoff than in the initial vote. Fowler came within 17,378 votes of winning reelection in November. Although he got a slightly larger share of the vote in the runoff (49.4% compared to 49.2%), three weeks later he lost to Paul Coverdell by 16,237 votes.
Although turnout invariably drops in the runoff and sometimes the decline is precipitous, Republican voters return to the polls at higher rates than do Democrats and this pattern has prevailed over time and under varied circumstances. Based on the record of previous general election runoffs, it appears that the November imperatives differ for Democrats and Republicans. If the past provides a window to the future, Michelle Nunn, Jason Carter and other Democrats need to win a majority of the vote. David Perdue, Nathan Deal and other Republicans simply need to make it into a runoff.
If runoffs become necessary this year, the election calendar becomes even more complex. Should a runoff be needed to settle the gubernatorial contest or any of the other state offices, it will occur on December 2, four weeks after the general election. A runoff for the Senate would not take place for another five weeks coming on January 6, three days after the convening of the 114th Congress. In the wake of Judge Steve Jones’ ruling that the timing of a runoff for federal offices must allow sufficient time to distribute ballots to American military personnel serving overseas, the General Assembly scheduled a nine-week interlude between the primary and primary runoff for all offices. The statute did not, however, coordinate the timing for state and federal general election runoffs and that accounts for the potential of two runoff dates if candidates fail to secure majorities in November.
Past experience suggests that the difficulties Democrats have had in getting their supporters back for a December runoff might become magnified if a return to the polls became necessary in January or in both months. Runoffs will provide a new test for the effectiveness of the Democratic ground game that the Obama campaign has developed.
A Senate runoff has the potential to provide an impetus that may prompt marginal voters to make a winter pilgrimage to the voting booth. Suppose that leading up to a Senate runoff in Georgia, Republicans had 50 Senate seats and Democrats and their allied independent senators numbered 49. A Perdue victory would give the GOP control of the Senate; election of Nunn combined with Vice President Joe Biden’s tie-breaking vote would allow Democrats to organize the upper chamber and claim all of the committee and subcommittee chairs. Under this scenario, in December Georgia would become the center of the American electoral universe. Unprecedented sums and the presence of a who’s who of leaders from both parties would mark a January runoff. Could these resources break the pattern of greater Republican than Democratic runoff participation?
In the 2008 Senate runoff, the stakes were not as great as in the scenario sketched out above. Saxby Chambliss mobilized supporters by warning that his reelection was the only thing that would deny President Obama a veto-proof Senate. These stakes did not prevent a drop in participation or more than 40 percent although they motivated far more Republicans than Democrats.
A January runoff might lead voters watching attack ads during the holidays to conclude that a new Grinch had stolen Christmas.
Charles S. Bullock, III
Richard B. Russell Professor of Political Science
Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor
Co-author of Runoff Elections in United States