What matters most in close contests

Two years ago at this time, challenger candidate Rev. Raphael Warnock mopped the debate room floor with his opponent, the junior incumbent U.S. Senator Kelly Loeffler. Her performance was wooden and flat, as she appeared to recite lines from a script not connecting with any audience. What a difference some confidence and apparent conviction in a set of core values can make.

 This year, Warnock faced Herschel Walker in a similar setting. Walker’s debate answers were not always consistent with his prior stated positions, and his brandishing of a sheriff’s badge (honorary) was clumsy and tentative. On whole, he showed us the same face, smile and ease with the space he occupies as well as his beliefs that hard work, commitment and being raised well by loving parents in Wrightsville, Georgia, really does matter. Walker appeared genuine.

 He is probably smart to stick with the one debate, but he didn’t embarrass himself, and where Warnock appeared to sweat a bit and to repeat lines of his honor and appreciation to be holding the positions that he has, that script started to ring hollow on the fourth and fifth recitation. Walker’s mission was to give his base reasons to still show up. He did. Warnock had the easier job and the technically superior performance, as well as more studied responses.  But that didn’t feel like a win for him.

 In close contests, trends, momentum and what is happening at the top of the ticket all matter considerably. And there, incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp is steadily widening his lead. Since the first week of September 2022, there have been 13 publicly released polls on the governor’s race. Kemp has bested each, and with one exception, his showing has been 50 percent or better. This once close contest only twice showed Abrams within the margin of error to tie Kemp. The Atlanta Journal & Constitution’s polling unit show Kemp widening his lead to 10 percent over Stacey Abrams, who even carrying all the undecided vote (which will split), and flipping Libertarians, shows numbers no longer portending a long night in the governor’s race. This is trending toward significant benefits down ballot for most every race for Georgia’s constitutional offices, and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger is polling to outperform every other Republican on the ballot (in terms of percentage of vote).

 Since 2016, as Georgia Democrats surged into majorities again across the core counties in metro Atlanta, more ballots were cast in advance of Election Day. Democrats have won advance voting and absentee voting by healthy margins since, and during 2016, 2018 and 2020, more ballots were cast prior to Election Day than on Election Day. The GOP in each case, won the votes on Election Day. But thus far in these mid-terms, in part driven by logistical changes within the Georgia Election Integrity Act and including record registration and turnout in the General Primary and Primary Runoff, more traditional Georgia voting patterns have reset. 

 Advance voting dropped to 45 percent of the total vote, with 4 percent cast via absentee, versus the high double-digits during the height of the pandemic in 2020. With advance and absentee voting now underway, the respective parties will turn to turnout. Micro-targeting of voters with precision robo calls, door-to-door canvassing in key precincts, late breaking and audience specific endorsements as well as flooding voters’ phones with texts to remind them to make it to the polls, will in some respects replace the on-air bombardment that will continue but becomes less impactful. From Monday, Oct. 17, through the Friday prior to Election Day, and then roaring up again on Election Day, each party and its ticket topping candidates will use every tool at its disposal to activate its vote and voters.

 It is often said that it is all over now but for the shouting, when the reality is that it is almost all over but the voting. As with the U.S. Senate runoffs in Georgia on Jan. 5, 2021, when roughly 400,000 GOP voters stayed home, and the Senate majority became Democratic, several thousand disaffected evangelicals sitting out this Senate contest to send Walker or the Georgia GOP a message, could well be decisive for Warnock. 

Polling and conditions on the ground favor the GOP slate, yet it will be smart moves and execution in the areas listed above, as well as the all-too-ethereal momentum, which will carry the day on Nov. 8.

Best of luck to all those who chose to enter the arena. Vote your conscience, but please vote.

Bill Crane is political analyst and commentator in metro Atlanta, as well as a columnist for The Champion, DeKalb Free Press and Georgia Trend. Crane is a DeKalb native and business owner, living in Scottdale. You can contact him or comment on a column at bill.csicrane@gmail.com.

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