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Georgia’s Senate Race Is Much Closer Than The Governor Election. Will That Hold Until November?

After a history-making 2020 and 2021, Georgia is once again on our minds with two high-profile statewide races on the ballot this November: the U.S. Senate race, a highly competitive contest between Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker, as well as the gubernatorial contest, a high-octane rematch between Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams.

But interestingly, these races have pretty different outlooks in FiveThirtyEight’s 2022 midterm forecast. The Senate race is currently rated as a toss-up, while in the governor’s race Kemp is a clear favorite to win.

Does Herschel Walker have enough goodwill in Georgia to win a Senate seat?

Given how partisan our politics have become — especially in a state like Georgia where the electorate is highly polarized — it’s pretty unusual that the two statewide races show such a large gap, as much as 13 percentage points in some polls. Historically, major contests in Georgia have run close together, which is why a sizable split between the Senate and governor’s races would be pretty remarkable.

For starters, the gap between the two races varies depending on pollster, but on average, polls have found a 7-point difference between the margins in the Senate and gubernatorial contests. This pretty much matches what our more rigorous polling averages found, too, with Warnock up around 2 points and Kemp leading by about 5 points1 — or a 7-point gap.

The gap between Georgia’s marquee races is wide

The margin in Georgia’s Senate and governor races in polls that measured both, including the gap between the two contests, since the May 24 primary

Poll Date Senate Governor Gap
Emerson College Aug. 28-29 R+2 R+5 3
Trafalgar Group (R) Aug. 24-27 R+1 R+6 6
Phillips Academy/Abbot Academy Fund Aug. 3-7 R+2 R+8 6
Research Affiliates/Charlie L. Bailey (D) July 26-Aug. 1 D+3 TIE 3
InsiderAdvantage/WAGA-TV July 26-27 D+3 R+5 8
Beacon Research/Shaw & Co. Research/Fox News July 22-26 D+4 R+3 7
SurveyUSA/WXIA-TV July 21-24 D+9 R+1 10
Univ. of Georgia/Atlanta Journal-Constitution July 14-22 D+4 R+5 9
Fabrizio, Lee & Associates/Impact Research/AARP July 5-11 D+3 R+7 10
Beacon Research/Environmental Voter Project July 5-20 D+5 R+8 13
Data for Progress July 1-6 R+2 R+9 7
Change Research/Future Majority (D) June 24-27 D+4 R+2 6
Quinnipiac Univ. June 23-27 D+10 TIE 10
Moore Information/Herschel Walker (R) June 11-16 TIE R+7 7
East Carolina Univ. June 6-9 D+1 R+6 6
Average D+3 R+5 7

But the fact that Georgia’s electorate is so polarized makes it unlikely that we’ll see too large of a gap between the two contests. Like most of the Deep South, Georgia has a racially polarized electorate, where most Black voters back Democrats and most white voters back Republicans. 

Take Georgia’s 2020 presidential vote: 88 percent of Black voters supported President Biden, while 69 percent of white voters supported former President Trump, according to the 2020 exit polls. This gives Georgia what we at FiveThirtyEight call an “inelastic” electorate, or an electorate for which factors like the political environment and candidate traits are unlikely to sway voters because so few voters are swing voters.

This lack of a gap in Georgia’s statewide elections is clear when we examine elections dating back to 2002, which is arguably when Georgia’s current political era began — that year, Republicans won the governorship and captured a state-legislative chamber for the first time since Reconstruction. For instance, when we compare the outcomes in each pair of presidential, Senate and gubernatorial races in years when two of those races were on the ballot,2 the margins in these high-profile races usually differed only to a small extent, as the table below shows.

Top-tier Georgia races don’t usually differ much

Difference in margin between major statewide elections for president, Senate or governor in years when at least two of these offices were on the ballot, 2002 to present

Year Race Margin Race Margin Gap
2021 Senate D+1.2 Senate* D+2.1 0.9
2020 President D+0.2 Senate R+1.8 2.0
2016 President R+5.1 Senate R+13.8 8.7
2014 Senate R+7.7 Governor R+7.9 0.2
2010 Senate R+19.3 Governor R+10.1 9.3
2008 President R+5.2 Senate R+2.9 2.3
2004 President R+16.6 Senate R+17.9 1.3
2002 Senate R+6.9 Governor R+5.2 1.7

Although each year and race had its own set of particulars, six of these eight sets of elections saw only small differences in margin — less than 3 points. The exceptions were the 2010 midterms and 2016 presidential election, when there was a wide gap between the Senate election and the other statewide election. (Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson was up both years, so he may have given the GOP a lift as an incumbent; also former Gov. Roy Barnes served as the Democrats’ nominee for governor in 2010, and his past appeal in more conservative parts of the state may have made that race closer than it would’ve been otherwise.) But these elections were the exception, not the norm. Even the state’s most recent elections, the 2020 presidential election and 2021 Senate runoffs, featured elections with very similar margins — although they might be evidence that the overall political climate in Georgia is shifting toward Democrats.

It’s notable, then, that the FiveThirtyEight forecast shows such a large divide between the Senate and governor races in its average projected vote share. The forecast currently3 has Kemp with a 6-point lead and Warnock with about a 1-point lead, which would amount to a 7-point gap between the two races. 

There are a number of potential explanations for this gap, but the biggest factor might be incumbency and, more importantly, that Georgia’s top two races feature incumbents from different parties — Kemp is a Republican and Warnock a Democrat. Incumbency does not provide as strong a tailwind as it once did, but both Kemp and Warnock are relatively popular politicians who could each win. From April through June, Morning Consult’s polling gave Kemp a 52 percent approval rating and only a 39 percent disapproval rating; Warnock, meanwhile, had an approval rating of about 47 percent and a disapproval rating of 41 percent.

In other words, there isn’t that much difference between Kemp’s and Warnock’s standing in Georgia. However, given that the gap between the two races is unlikely to remain this large and that Kemp has a healthier lead over Abrams than Warnock has over Walker, voters who split their tickets could matter a lot for Warnock. And two polls, one from Emerson College released last week and a July survey from Beacon Research/Shaw & Company on behalf of Fox News, show how different degrees of Kemp voters backing Warnock could matter. In Emerson’s poll, only 3 percent of Kemp supporters backed Warnock, and overall, Walker led by 2 points. In the Fox News survey, meanwhile, 8 percent of Kemp’s supporters backed Warnock, and overall, Warnock led by 4 points. The takeaway here is that higher levels of support for Warnock among Kemp voters would seemingly boost the incumbent senator’s chances of finishing ahead of Walker. 

This is not to say that only split-ticket voting will matter to the outcomes in each race; turnout and the overall political environment are also important. But Warnock would be in much better shape if he could capture 8 percent of Kemp’s voters versus just 3 percent: Based on the 2018 governor’s race, that could be a difference of roughly 100,000 votes, or about 2.5 percent of ballots cast. In a close contest, that’s a big deal — case in point, Kemp defeated Abrams by just 55,000 votes four years ago.

Finally, there’s one other wrinkle with Georgia: If no candidate wins an outright majority of the vote, a runoff between the top-two finishers will take place on Dec. 6, 2022.Georgia voting law passed early in 2021 contained many changes for voting rules, including a shift in the runoff date for federal elections to four weeks after the regular election, instead of nine.

” data-footnote-id=”4″ href=”http://fivethirtyeight.com/#fn-4″>4 And considering each contest has a Libertarian candidate, which is notable because Libertarians have averaged a little over 2 percent in statewide races dating back to 2002, it’s entirely possible that if the Senate race is especially tight, a Libertarian candidate who gains 1 or 2 percent of the vote could trigger a Warnock-Walker runoff in December. Currently,5 the FiveThirtyEight forecast gives the Senate race about a 1-in-5 chance of going to a runoff, while the governor’s race has about a 1-in-10 chance.

At this point, it’s too soon to say how the races in Georgia will change, but with two months to go until Election Day, we’ll be keeping a close eye on Peach State polls to see whether the gap between the two contests remains large or narrows.

I buy Dems are favored to win Pennsylvania Senate and gubernatorial races: Silver

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight. @geoffreyvs

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