Will Trump’s Antics Suppress Republican Turnout in the Georgia Senate Runoffs?

The devil’s coming down to Georgia this weekend. Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

Donald Trump is holding his first postelection rally this Saturday in Valdosta, Georgia. Georgia Republicans hope Trump will make a pitch to his supporters to turn out in two January 5 runoffs and vote for GOP senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, but they also fear his demonization of the state’s voting systems and Republican election officials could have the reverse effect, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports.

Republicans are worried about what Trump will say in the company of red-hatted MAGA folk cheering his unwillingness to concede his loss to Joe Biden and move along in the great cattle drive of life. It does seem that the president is trying out a pitch on Twitter that reconciles his election-theft claims with his party’s interests in Georgia, albeit by way of whacking the state’s Republican governor:

Trump is referring to his frankly rather ludicrous demands that Georgia once again verify signatures on mail ballot envelopes (see this CNN fact-check) or throw many thousands of ballots in the trash. But unfortunately for Republicans, Trump hasn’t just been attacking voting by mail in Georgia; he’s also bought into lurid conspiracy theories about the machines used to count all Georgia ballots and has maligned the integrity of (Republican!) election officials supervising the system. It’s unclear why any Georgia Republican who takes Trump’s point of view seriously would want to entrust their vote on January 5 to such an allegedly rigged electoral infrastructure.

Perhaps he will find some way to square this circle, but so far his mixed messages about voting in Georgia are suboptimal for a party desperate to win these two Senate races.

So the question must be asked: Will Trump’s behavior really affect turnout to a significant degree? One important piece of evidence is that Trump’s attacks on voting by mail did indeed convince many millions of his supporters to vote in person in the general election. If these same followers in Georgia perceive him to be warning them the runoffs are rigged and voting may be useless, it surely could have a negative impact on Republican turnout, at least at the margins.

There has been a working assumption among most observers that Republicans began the runoff campaign with an advantage, since historically their voters have been more likely to show up for special elections and general election runoffs like the one on January 5. But it’s unclear if there’s any useful precedent for this particular contest.

In the last Senate runoff in Georgia in 2008, Republican incumbent Saxby Chambliss converted a 3-point lead over Democrat Jim Martin in the first round on November 4 to a comfortable 14-point victory in the December 2 runoff. But that race had a tiny percentage of the resources and attention — particularly from the national parties — that this one is already enjoying. Total turnout in 2008 dropped from 3.7 million to 2.1 million between November and December. With an extra month to campaign, and with estimates of total spending ranging up to a billion dollars, there will not be that sort of turnout collapse this time around. And while Chambliss outgunned Martin financially, it’s looking like the two parties are on a level playing field in resources today.

Perhaps a more relevant precedent is the famous 2017 House special election in the northern suburbs of Atlanta in which Jon Ossoff — one of this year’s Senate Democratic candidates — narrowly lost a runoff to conservative warhorse Karen Handel after breaking all sorts of fundraising records. But you can argue that Georgia has turned bluer since then: Handel subsequently lost her House seat to Lucy McBath in 2018 and then lost a rematch this year by a larger margin.

In any event, all the indicators, including two recent media polls, show two close races; the latest, from Survey USA, actually has Democrat Raphael Warnock running well ahead of Loeffler. So anything Trump does to depress GOP turnout could be fatal. Georgia Republicans are right to look toward Valdosta this weekend with concern. The only thing you can count on Trump to do is to make trouble.

Will Trump’s Antics Suppress Republican Turnout in Georgia?