As special elections go, the race to replace Tom Price in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District has been about as expensive and closely watched as it gets. Sometime Tuesday night, we’ll find out if all the money and attention were worth it.
That is, we’ll see if a green-horn Democrat with millions of blue-state dollars can truly move the needle in a deep-red district.
Jon Ossoff was almost completely unknown when he announced a candidacy with a simple slogan: Make Trump furious. It’s earned him a record fund-raising haul and a ton of attention from national media outlets intent on portraying the race as a referendum on Trump.
I was skeptical of that narrative when the race began, and I remain dubious now.
First, it’s far from clear anything especially unusual is happening here. The Sixth has a consistent ceiling for Democrats of 40 percent. The one exception was last November, when Donald Trump barely won a plurality in the district over Hillary Clinton. And the operating theory for some was that that single data point overshadowed what we’ve seen in the Sixth for years and years before 2016.
How’s that going? Well, the average of the last 10 public* opinion polls in the race, covering the past month, shows Ossoff at 42 percent. Just two of the 10 show him definitely above 40 percent when considering the poll’s margin of error. None, even when considering the margin of error, shows him reaching 50 percent. (Adding the totals for the distant second-place Democrat, former state legislator Ron Slotin, gives us a combined average of 43 percent.)
So if the polls have it right, the Democrats are currently under-performing Clinton in the Sixth, not building upon her showing to make a surprise move for the seat.
Now consider what those polls show about the GOP side of the field, which is much more scrambled. The six leading Republicans, fighting for a spot in a run-off, average a combined 48 percent in those 10 polls. Their total equals or trumps Ossoff’s in nine of the 10 polls.
Then there are the early voting totals, which strongly indicate Republican voters have not only matched but surpassed the big number Democratic voters posted early on. That’s fairly typical. So is the likelihood that voting on Tuesday itself will tilt significantly in Republicans’ favor.
On the available evidence, then, what we have is what we had every reason to expect from the start: The consensus Democratic candidate is pulling the roughly 40 percent of Sixth District voters who reliably vote for Democrats, plus some independents. If that holds up — and the big caveat here, in fact the only reason this contest is in any doubt whatsoever, is that special elections with low turnout can have strange results — then the Ossoff phenomenon will have been much ado about nothing. After all, the Democrats’ candidate last year got 38 percent while reporting no campaign spending.
I spoke with people in the campaigns of three of the four leading Republican candidates in recent days to test my thinking. Two of them said flatly they thought Ossoff’s window for a majority on Tuesday has closed, to the extent it was ever open. The third hedged a bit, but still said the most likely result for the Democrat is to finish in the low 40s. Given that it’s been a relatively mud-free affair on the more crowded GOP side of things, meaning we can expect the also-rans to line up pretty quickly behind the surviving Republican, that most likely would mean little more than a chance for liberals in California, Massachusetts and New York to pour good money after bad in a run-off.
Finally, consider what this race has really been about. The narrative of this being a referendum on Trump doesn’t really hold up in light of how the campaign has been waged. The Republicans have hardly tried to run from the president. On the contrary, a few of them have spent much of their time trying to burnish their own pro-Trump bona fides, or to cast doubt on their opponents’. Even Ossoff, besides that “Make Trump furious” line, has spent some of his TV ad time lately talking about cutting government waste and holding Washington accountable to taxpayers. Take away the “D” by his name and the Daily Kos fund-raising efforts, and he’d almost sound like another Republican. The mentions of him as a Democrat have mostly come in Republican ads. What does that tell you about the way things still stand in the Sixth?
It tells me the supposed revolution up Roswell way ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.
*You’ll notice one other poll on the list at the link that wasn’t a public poll, but an internal poll by the Moody campaign that was reported in Politico. I left it out because it only broke down the results for three of the Republicans while showing an especially large “other” vote — making it way too exclusive to include in this exercise.