Like most states, Georgia divorces state elections from national ones so that in presidential years no statewide constitutional offices appear on the ballot. In 2024, the only contested statewide election was for a seat to the Supreme Court. Justice Andrew Pinson, recently appointed to a vacancy by Gov. Brian Kemp, confronted a challenge from former U.S. Rep. John Barrow. Both candidates ran well-funded campaigns that featured numerous television ads.

Public polling was not conducted so the results came as something of a surprise in this nonpartisan contest. While neither Pinson nor Barrow had widespread name recognition, Barrow had an advantage at least initially based on his previous candidacies. During his decade in Congress Barrow represented most of east Georgia from his home in Athens to Savannah to Augusta as Republicans reconfigured his district in efforts to defeat him, a goal achieved in 2014. Barrow also had the advantage of having forced Brad Raffensperger into a runoff in the 2018 election for secretary of state, a contest Raffensperger won with 52% of the vote. Pinson had never previously faced the electorate.

Since judicial contests have been nonpartisan for decades, voters looking for a simple cue for how to vote when they know little about the candidates can’t fall back on party loyalty. Television watchers might have remembered seeing an ad done by Kemp endorsing his appointee, but many, especially young voters, do not watch commercial channels.

When voters confront a choice about which they lack information, some choose the first name on the ballot and that can give the candidate whose name appears first as much as a five percent advantage over others – better to be named Abbott than Yates or Barrow rather than Pinson.

Georgia ballots do give voters one bit of information. Incumbents are identified. Adhering to the old adage that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it will work to the advantage of incumbents if things are going well. That may help explain why Pinson defeated Barrow so handily taking 54.9% of the vote, almost reaching the 55% threshold beyond which a victory is considered a landslide.

Pinson’s margin of victory is impressive. Barrow was a credible opponent and yet he performed worse than any recent Democratic candidates competing statewide. In 2022, the largest vote share obtained by a Republican, 54.2% for the state school superintendent, less than Pinson’s performance. Even in 2018, none of the winners, all Republicans, reached 55%. In between, in 2020, when Democrats won the big prizes, the margins ranged from 0.25 percentage points for Joe Biden to 2 points for Raphael Warnock. Barrow even fell short of his performance in the secretary of state contest.

The pattern in recent elections has been for the Democratic candidates to run up large margins in the 9 metro counties that have voted for Democrats since 2016 and then try to hold off Republican margins in the 130 or so counties that vote for GOP candidates. Pinson’s impressive victory margin is largely attributable to his almost wiping out the Democratic margin in the 9 Atlanta-area counties. The reduction was so severe that Barrow won only DeKalb (62.1%) and Fulton (54.5%). Pinson’s wins in Cobb (52.9%) and Gwinnett (54.8%) marked significant turnarounds from the last several election cycles. Douglas (56% for Pinson), Newton (53.6%) and Rockdale (54.1%) had been voting Democratic since 2008.

The size of Barrow’s success in Atlanta’s two most reliable Democratic counties enabled him to win the nine-county area but only narrowly, by 10,758 votes. What if Barrow had performed as well as recent Democrats have in the nine counties? To simulate how these counties might have performed if the partisan vote split had been like that in recent elections, I substituted the average percentage of the vote for Biden and for Warnock in the 2022 Senate runoff for the actual Pinson-Barrow vote. The biggest difference came in Clayton County where Pinson won, holding Barrow to 48.7% of the vote. In Clayton, the average share of the Democratic vote in the two recent elections was 87.5%, almost a 40-point swing. The smallest difference occurred in Newton where Barrow managed 46.4% compared with the average Democratic vote of 57.2%.

Had Barrow received the Democratic average share of the vote, he would have beaten Pinson by 184,593 votes in the 9 counties and not 10,758, the actual margin. Pinson’s statewide margin of victory was about 115,000.

As noted above, the weakest performance turned in by a Democrat in 2022 came in the contest for state school superintendent. Substituting the Democrat’s votes shares for that contest and simulating the outcome shows Barrow with a lead of almost 140,000, enough to have won statewide. If Barrow had done as well as recent statewide Democrats have in the Atlanta area, he would be in the market for a set of judicial robes.

We can only guess as to why the Democratic vote failed to rally to Barrow’s side. He did not stress his Democratic past and unlike Republicans who united behind Pinson, Democratic leaders did not endorse Barrow. It may be that Barrow’s promise to protect a woman’s right to an abortion failed to resonate with Democrats and instead inspired Republicans to turn out for Pinson. It may be that many Democrats in metro Atlanta were unaware of Barrow’s partisan background. Barrow did not have the get-out-the-vote grassroots operation that has been instrumental when Democrats have won recent statewide races.

Georgia judicial elections used to be partisan. But as Republicans began to expand their reach in suburbia, especially DeKalb County, the party label worked against Democrats including Democratic superior court judges in low-profile contests. Making the judicial elections nonpartisan helped Democrats survive as their partisan environment changed. In 2024, the absence of partisan labels may have been instrumental in extending Justice Pinson’s tenure. Competing with an (I) beside the name indicating incumbency and not a (D) or (R) for parry may have also helped Republican judicial appointees in Democratic leaning judicial circuits like Atlanta . . . think Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee.

Charles S. Bullock, III, is Distinguished University of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia. His recent co-authored book, African American Statewide Candidates in the New South includes chapters on the 2018 Kemp – Abrams contest and the 2020 Warnock – Loeffler election.

Login

Lost your password?