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What exit polls say about state of Georgia’s Senate runoffs

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It’s rare for runoff elections to generate much interest among voters, but Georgia seems primed to be the exception, with its two upcoming Senate runoffs in January that will determine who controls the Senate.

Republicans and Democrats are searching the state for new voters, although CBS News exit polling of the general election suggests neither party has much room to grow outside of their bases before the January runoffs. Time is short, with little over two weeks before early voting begins. One race pits GOP Senator Kelly Loeffler against Democrat Reverend Raphael Warnock and the other has Republican David Perdue defending his seat against Jon Ossoff. 

Trey Hood, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, thinks it’s crucial for the parties to attract new voters to their coalitions to stay viable in January. Some opportunities for both parties do exist, but first, they’ll likely be trying to make sure that the people who voted for them in November cast their ballots again by January 5.

Mail voting

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Despite President Trump’s attacks on mail-in voting, Georgians embraced the opportunity to vote by mail amid surging COVID infections. In November, like other states, they broke mail voting records, successfully requesting and returning 1.3 million absentee ballots, a 74% return rate, while nearly 2.7 million people voted early in person. Mail-in voting is certain to be a key part of Democratic efforts in January, too.

Joe Biden dominated absentee voting, with almost 850,000 votes, compared to about 451,000 for Mr. Trump. That near 2-to-1 margin helped overcome his deficit in early in-person voting — Mr. Biden had almost 1,251,000 to Mr. Trump’s 1,419,000 — and in Election Day ballots, when the president received almost 588,000, compared to Mr. Biden’s 367,000 votes.

It’s hard to predict how many will vote — and by what means — in January, but the U.S. Elections Project says nearly 825,000 people had so far requested mail-in ballots by Wednesday morning. Georgians have until January 1 to send their requests, although the U.S. Postal Service recommends sending requests as early as possible. Voters can register for the runoff until December 7, and early voting will take place beginning December 14.

Most Georgians have likely already made their decisions about who’s getting their vote. No voter who spoke with CBS News planned to switch votes in the January contests. A week before the November election, CBS News polling showed just 4% of likely voters were undecided in the Perdue-Ossoff race. Perdue led with 49.7% to Ossoff’s 47.9%, falling just 0.3% short of outright victory. Libertarian Shane Hazel was eliminated with 2.3% of the vote. 

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Perdue’s vote wasn’t divided between Republicans, as Senator Kelly Loeffler’s was in her race, and he actually won a fraction more votes than President Trump, with 49.7%, compared to the president’s 49.3%. Ossoff finished with 47.9% support, leaving him about a two-point margin to make up in January. 

In the other Senate race, the special election to fill former Senator Johnny Isakson’s seat, Loeffler and Collins won a combined 45% of the vote, ahead of Warnock’s 32.9%. The other Democratic candidates received 15% combined.

Dorothy Harpe, 70, was in the majority of voters who knew who she was supporting before the election. A longtime Republican, Harpe said she voted for Perdue and Loeffler. And she’ll support them again in the runoffs.

“Senator Perdue has been there a long time and he is experienced,” said Harpe, who lives in Atlanta. “I don’t think we need the other candidate, Jon Ossoff, because he’s not qualified. He’s not experienced.”

Longtime Democrat Latreana Johnson, 63, of Savannah, first spoke with CBS News in October, during the early voting period. She voted for Warnock and Ossoff then and said she plans to do so again in a few weeks. Voting for Ossoff was an easy call for her — because of one consequential endorsement.

“Barack Obama is backing him up 100% and you can’t go wrong with Barack Obama, so I’m backing whoever he backs up,” said Johnson.

Perdue lost support from White voters

As was the case in the presidential race, White voters in Georgia, who make up 61% of the Georgia electorate and who mostly supported President Trump, largely went for Perdue, too, at 69%, but he underperformed with this group, compared to his last Senate bid in 2014, when he won 74% of their votes.

In her race, Loeffler won the larger share of support from White voters (42%), outpacing the other Republican in the race, Congressman Doug Collins, who received 28% support.

Perdue won White voters with college degrees, though his margins with this group are much lower compared to his last bid. In 2014, Perdue won 70% of White college graduates, while this year he won significantly less: 56%. 

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Jeramy Frederiksen, 39, has a degree in economics and said he voted for Perdue and Loeffler because they best represent his conservative values.

“It was a no-brainer for me,” said Frederiksen. “The conservative value kind of gears more toward the working man and woman with personal responsibility, God…and those are signs of strength.” 

Hood, who is also the director of the Survey Research Center at the University of Georgia, said there’s been a shift in the base of both political parties.

“You probably have a larger percentage of college-educated White [voters] that are still Republican in Georgia compared to, say, Wisconsin or something,” said Hood. “It’s very interesting that the base of the parties has switched in terms of sort of working class being sort of the base of the Republican Party now.”

Democrats lead with independents

Georgia Republicans and Democrats largely voted within their party, but both Ossoff and Warnock also performed well with independents in November. They won 51% and 37% of independent voters, respectively. Six percent of independents chose Libertarian candidate Shane Hazel over Ossoff or Perdue. 

In the Perdue-Ossoff match-up, among the 38% of voters who identify as moderates, Ossoff won 63% of their votes, while Perdue won just 34%.

“Things are pretty evenly split in terms of vote totals between the Republicans and the Democrats, so someone’s going to have to reach out and get some new voters for their coalition to stay viable, and for both [parties] it could be Hispanic voters,” said Hood. 

Both parties look to Latinos 

Both parties are likely to target Latino voters, too, who were more divided in their support for the Democratic candidates. Nearly a third went for Reverend Raphael Warnock, while 26% voted for the other Democratic candidate, Matt Lieberman. Overall, Latinos constituted 7% of the state’s electorate in November.

Ossoff received less support from Latino voters (52%) than President-elect Biden, who earned 62% of the Latino vote in Georgia, while Perdue performed better with Latinos than President Trump, winning 43% of the vote. Mr. Trump won 37% of the Latino vote in the state. And while Hazel received just about 2% of the overall vote, he did pick up 4% of the Latino vote.

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“The Hispanic population is growing and continuing to grow in Georgia, whereas the white population is contracting to some degree and the Black populations [are] fairly stable, growing slightly,” Hood said. 

Black voters turn out for Democrats

Hood says Black turnout is “critical to the Democratic coalition.” He recalled, “In the last statewide Senate election runoff we had in 2008 with Saxby Chambliss, I did the calculations, and Black turnout from the general, from the 2008 general to the runoff dropped by three points. So, that was very high.” Chambliss won the runoff by nearly 15 points, “and a lot of it was due to that falloff in Black turnout,” Hood said, adding, “if that happens again, that’s going to be very detrimental to the Democratic candidates in the runoff.”

Black voters make up 29% of the Georgia electorate, and 88% voted for Mr. Biden. Black women overwhelmingly voted for Jon Ossoff — similar to the presidential race, where Mr. Biden garnered 92% of votes cast by Black women in Georgia. The majority of Black voters also went for Warnock. Johnson said Warnock appealed to her because of his life experiences.

“He can relate. Period,” said Johnson. “He grew up in one of the major projects here in Savannah, Georgia…he had a lot of brothers and sisters and everything, and the bottom line is that [he] can relate to our struggle.” 

Election integrity

Republicans have another challenge before them in that the top members of their party, including President Trump and the two Republicans running for Senate, have been sowing doubts about the election system and any Republican who vouched for it, including Georgia’s governor and secretary of state. And it remains to be seen whether the GOP can now convince its voters to show up again in January to participate in a process they have worked to undermine.

“It’s the integrity of the system that is absolutely 100% my concern,” said Frederiksen, who lives outside of Warner Robins. “If we lose this fair and square, so be it. OK, America voted that way, which I don’t believe they did.”

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