Trump, Biden headline final push in Georgia Senate runoff

President-elect Joe Biden walks onstage to speak at a drive-in rally for Georgia Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) (Patrick Semansky, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

ATLANTA – Campaigns and outside groups are making a final push to turn out election-weary Georgians whose votes will determine control of the U.S. Senate, from a crush of text messages and television ads to dueling visits from President-elect Joe Biden and outgoing President Donald Trump.

Trump plans a Monday night rally in the north Georgia town of Dalton to boost Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler. Biden will be in Atlanta on Monday to campaign for Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will rally for them in Savannah on Sunday.

This will be the second campaign visit to the state during the Senate runoffs for Trump and Biden.

Just over 3 million people — just over half the turnout of last month’s presidential election — had cast their ballots early either in person or by absentee ballot, based on Saturday morning’s data from the U.S. Election Project, run by a University of Florida professor.

With margins in the Jan. 5 runoffs expected to be tight, the campaigns for Perdue, Loeffler, Ossoff and Warnock are all focused on mobilizing voters.

That means everything from individual voter contacts urging early voting, which ends Thursday, to last-minute campaign stops from national headliners trying to boost Election Day turnout.

“We want to run through the tape. We don’t want to leave anything for granted," said Jessica Anderson, executive director of Heritage Action, a grassroots conservative organization that has volunteers and staffers knocking on doors, making phone calls and sending text messages.

Roshan Mody is the co-founder of Plus1Vote, which focuses on getting young people out to vote on climate change, social justice and voting rights. He told progressive activists Monday during an online briefing that it’s going to come down to turnout.

“All the signs are good,” he said of Democrats' chances. “But a blowout is less likely than us kind of going over the edge by 10-20,000 votes.”

In the nearly two months since the general election in November, Georgians have been inundated by radio and television advertisements, mailings, calls, text messages and even hand-written notes from out-of-state residents urging them to vote.

Runoff elections historically draw a much lower turnout than general elections, and in Georgia they have favored Republican candidates in the last decade or so. But in this unique election — with national attention, money pouring in and control of the Senate at stake — the normal rules don't seem to apply.

Rather than dropping dramatically, early voting for the runoff is only about 20% lower than the early turnout at the same point before the general election, though missed days over Christmas make a direct comparison difficult. Experts who track early voting data say the high turnout, particularly among African American voters, and the continued engagement of younger voters is a good sign for the Democrats.

“These are the numbers that the Democrats need in order to be able to win the election," said Michael McDonald, a University of Florida professor who tracks vote counts for the U.S. Elections Project. “It doesn’t mean that they are going to win. It’s just the numbers they would want to see if they are going to win.”

But McDonald and others are quick to say that the election results are likely to be very close, and there's too much uncertainty to draw sweeping conclusions from the early voting data.

While early voting trends so far seem to favor Democrats, Republicans typically have higher Election Day turnout and they could also make gains in the final days of early in-person or absentee voting, McDonald said. There are also wildcard factors like the weather — though the current Election Day forecast is mild and dry across the state.

In-person early voting ends statewide Thursday, though some counties observe New Year's Eve as a holiday so Wednesday will be their last day. Absentee ballots can be returned by mail or in drop boxes to be counted as long as they're received by 7 p.m. on Election Day.

Perdue and Loeffler both failed to win a majority of votes in the general election last month, forcing the runoffs.

After a bitter fight during the general election between Loeffler and third-place finisher GOP U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, Republicans need to focus on making sure Collins voters now support Loeffler, Emory University political science professor Bernard Fraga said. They also need to stress the importance of voting despite repeated baseless claims from Trump and his allies that the presidential election was rigged and marred by fraud.

“Republicans can’t afford to throw away any votes,” Fraga said. "I think this just adds to the pressure on Trump to make a very forceful push to his supporters regarding the importance of this election and the importance of their participation in this election.”

The president already held a rally earlier this month in Valdosta, in south Georgia. Vice President Mike Pence and other high-profile Republicans have also traveled to Georgia.

In the final days before the election, Democrats need to work on turning out Latino and Asian American voters, Fraga said. Participation by both groups surged in the general election, but they are less consistent voters and will need extra mobilization to turn out, he said. A continued focus on younger voters is also critical.

“It looks a lot better for Democrats now than anyone would have predicted based on the historical record," Fraga said. “I think the question is whether it’s enough and the next few days are going to be key for seeing whether the group-level differences in turnout are suggestive of a pattern that favors Democrats.”

So far, very few of the runoff voters are people who didn’t vote in general election, Fraga said.

“If we assume that very few people are changing their minds about which party they’re going to vote for in the runoff, then much of the electoral landscape has already been baked in in Georgia and it’s really a story about turnout instead of changing people’s minds,” he said.