Handicapping The Georgia 6 Special Election

If the polls are right, then Democrat Jon Ossoff will receive by far the most votes in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, which is holding a special election to replace former U.S. Rep. Tom Price on Tuesday.1 But Ossoff will probably finish with less than 50 percent of the vote, which would trigger a runoff between him and the next-highest finisher — most likely the Republican Karen Handel, but possibly one of three other Republicans (Bob Gray, Dan Moody Judson Hill) who are closely bunched behind her in polls.

Furthermore, the combined vote for all Republican candidates will probably exceed the combined vote for Ossoff and other Democrats, although it should be close. And the district has historically been Republican-leaning, although it was much less so in the 2016 election than it had been previously. All of this makes for a fairly confusing set of circumstances and a hard-to-forecast outcome.

But we can gain some insight by evaluating the results of past elections to Congress in California, Louisiana and Washington, which follow a similar structure to the Georgia special election. That is to say, they have a first round or nonpartisan blanket primary in which unlimited numbers of candidates from all parties compete against one another, and a second round in which the top two candidates advance to a runoff. 2 This data allows us to come to a handful of broad conclusions:
  • First, the aggregate party margin — whether Democrats or Republicans receive more votes overall — indeed has some predictive power for forecasting runoff results. It’s a useful thing to look at.
  • But so does the top-two margin — that is, which candidate wins the first round, and by how much.
  • Of these measures, the aggregate party margin is somewhat more predictive. But when there’s a split between them — say, the Democrat is the top finisher but Republicans win the aggregate vote — the runoff could usually go either way.
  • The runoff often winds up being a lot different than what you might expect from the first round, as the dynamics of a multiway race and a two-way race aren’t that similar to one another. Uncertainty is inherently fairly high.
  • Metrics such as the overall partisanship of a district — as measured by its relative presidential margin, for instance (how it votes for president as compared to the rest of the country) — may be more predictive of runoff outcomes than the first-round results.
Apply these principles to the Georgia 6 race, and you’ll conclude that Tuesday night’s first round won’t actually resolve that much — unless Ossoff hits 50 percent of the vote and averts the runoff entirely. (That’s an unlikely but hardly impossible scenario given the fairly high error margins of polls under these circumstances.) Even if Ossoff finishes in the low 40s, it will be hard to rule him out in the second round provided that he still finishes in first place by a comfortable margin. But even if Ossoff finishes just a point or two shy of 50 percent, and Democrats finish with more votes than Republicans overall,3 he won’t have any guarantees in the runoff given that it’s a Republican-leaning district and that the GOP will have a chance to regroup. With the runoff not scheduled until June 20, there will be lots of time for speculation about what the first round meant — and a lot of it will be hot air.

While I’ve already given away the conclusion, let’s walk through the evidence in a bit more detail. First, here’s where polls have the race, using an average of the most recent surveys from SurveyUSA, Opinion Savvy, Landmark Communications, Lake Research Partners, Meeting Street Research, Revily, Red Racing Horses and Clout Research, with undecideds allocated proportionately among the candidates.

Jon Ossoff    46   
Karen Handel        18
Bob Gray        13
Dan Moody        9
Judson Hill        9
Ron Slotin    1   
David Abroms        1
Other Republicans        1
Other Democrats    1   
Total by party    48%    51%
Ossoff has a big lead, but Democrats are under 50 percent

Ossoff has polled at a raw 42 percent on average between these polls, but he gets up to 46 percent given his portion of the undecided vote. Handel is the top Republican, at 18 percent after allocating undecideds, with Gray following her at 13 percent. Republicans combined have 51 percent of the vote, however, whereas Democrats have 48 percent.4
If Tuesday’s results wound up exactly like this — with Republicans winning the aggregate party vote by 3 percentage points, but Ossoff winning the top-two margin by 28 points over Handel — then what would the outlook be for the second round?

With help from my colleague Aaron Bycoffe, I found 181 elections to Congress (either the House or the Senate) since 2008 in California, Louisiana and Washington, which used the two-stage format and in which a Republican squared off against a Democrat in the runoff.5 Then I ran a regression to predict the runoff margin based on the aggregate party margin and the top-two margin. It came up with the following formula:

Runoff margin = .66 * Aggregate party margin + .22 * Top-two margin

Note that the coefficient is larger on the aggregate party margin than top-two margin — that’s the regression’s way of saying that the aggregate party margin is the more important indicator. However, the top-two margin — that is, who actually won the first round — shouldn’t be overlooked. Out of 21 races in our database where a candidate won the plurality in the first round but her party lost the aggregate party vote, the candidate nevertheless won the runoff 11 times. For instance, Republicans combined got more of the vote in Washington’s U.S. Senate primary in 2010, but Democratic incumbent Patty Murray got the plurality of the vote. Murray went on to win the second round over Republican Dino Rossi.

Plugging Ossoff’s numbers into the formula above, we come up with a projection that he’d win the runoff by 4 percentage points. So that sounds pretty good for him, right? Well, yes … it would be pretty good. But not more than pretty good, because he has some other things to worry about. For one thing, the margin of error in the calculation is quite high. Specifically, it’s about 8 percentage points for projecting one candidate’s vote share in the runoff, or 16 percentage points (!) for projecting the margin between the candidates. First-round results only tell you so much in these cases.

And then there’s the partisanship of the district to consider. In Louisiana’s Senate election in 2014, Democratic incumbent Mary Landrieu received 42 percent of the vote in the first round, a plurality. But she improved only to 44 percent in the runoff, easily losing to Republican Bill Cassidy. There just weren’t enough Democratic votes to go around in Louisiana. Could Ossoff suffer from a similar problem?

Perhaps, but the partisanship of Georgia’s 6th District is hard to gauge. Former Republican speaker Newt Gingrich represented the district for 20 years. And in 2012, it voted for Mitt Romney by 23 percentage points, according to data compiled by Daily Kos Elections. But last year, it chose Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by less than 2 percentage points. Like other well-educated, Sunbelt suburbs, it was one of the bright spots for Democrats in what was otherwise a tough election.

Because of this ambiguity, the results in Georgia 6 are going to be hard to benchmark. An Ossoff win would unambiguously be good news for Democrats. But a narrow loss could be anywhere from disappointing to encouraging for them, depending on the margin and whether you think 2016 represented the new normal in the district. If judged by its 2012 results, merely coming within single digits in Georgia 6 would count as a decent result for Democrats, as was the case in a special election in the Kansas’s 4th Congressional District last week. If we’re going by 2016, by contrast, Democrats ought to be competitive in the district as a matter of course — and they should be winning their fair share of races there when the national climate is even moderately Democratic leaning.

To measure district partisanship at FiveThirtyEight, we use the past two presidential elections, but weight them 75-25 in favor of the most recent election. We also compare the district to how the country voted overall, instead of looking at its raw vote totals. By our formula, Georgia 6 comes out as an R +10 district, meaning that it’s a net of 10 points more Republican than the country as a whole. (That is, in an election where the Republican and Democratic candidates tied in the national popular vote, you’d expect the Republican to win by 10 point in Georgia 6). That’s the sort of district that wouldn’t be competitive in a neutral year, but could easily become competitive if the national environment were friendly to Democrats.

If it seems like I’ve taken a lot of time to parse this district’s partisanship, that’s because it matters quite a lot for forecasting purposes. If you test a district’s presidential margin in the runoff elections I described above,6 it turns out to be more important than either the aggregate party margin or the top-two margin from the first round of voting. Put another way, these nonpartisan primaries can be weird — parties and voters sometimes face counterintuitive tactical choices7 — and therefore they may not be that informative. But in an environment when congressional and presidential voting are increasingly correlated, the long-term partisanship of a district can tell you a lot.

To get back to Georgia 6, we can now use the following formula to project the runoff results:

Runoff margin = .53 * Relative presidential margin + .35 * Aggregate party margin + .19 * Top-two margin

As I mentioned, the relative presidential margin is Republican +10 in the district. And Republicans project to win the aggregate party margin by 3 points on Tuesday. But Ossoff projects to win the top-two margin by 28 points. Apply the formula, and it shows a photo-finish for the runoff, with the Republican projected to win by 1 percentage point — effectively a toss-up given the formula’s high margin of error.8
We’re almost getting to the point where this has turned into (gulp) a model rather than just a quick-and-dirty way to take the pulse of the race. And if this were a full-fledged model, there are a couple of other things we’d want to consider. For one thing, it’s probably safe to conclude that we’re in a somewhat Democratic-leaning environment right now, given Trump’s poor approval ratings, a modest Democratic advantage on the generic congressional ballot and the results of last week’s special election in Kansas. That should mitigate some of Georgia 6’s Republican lean. For another thing, a couple of polls, such as this one, have tested prospective runoff matchups, and they’ve usually shown Ossoff a percentage point or two ahead of Handel and other Republicans. It’s not much of a “lead,” but it suggests that a runoff might at least be a toss-up for him.

As of Sunday evening, betting markets gave Ossoff about a 40 percent chance of eventually being the next member of Congress from Georgia 6, whether by winning a majority of the vote on Tuesday or prevailing in the June runoff. While that isn’t a ridiculous assessment, it looks too pessimistic on Ossoff. If the polls are right, the outcome of a runoff is more like a true 50-50 proposition — plus, there’s an outside chance that Ossoff could win outright on Tuesday. We’ll have a better sense for the odds after Tuesday, although perhaps not that much better given the uncertainties I described above.

But I generally think the conventional wisdom has been too slow to catch up with the fact that midterm and off-year elections are often problematic for the president’s party, and especially when the president is as unpopular as Trump. What might seem like an extraordinary feat — Democrats flipping Gingrich’s old seat — is going to be more commonplace in an environment like this one.

Jon Ossoff, a Democratic candidate for in the special election for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, at a campaign office in Atlanta on Saturday. JOE RAEDLE / GETTY IMAGES


Two weeks before a special election for Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District seat, which takes place this Tuesday, the thirty-year-old Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff stood on a busy North Atlanta street corner brandishing a lightsaber. His combatant was a giggling eight-year-old boy who didn’t grasp the broader sabering context: soon after Ossoff declared his candidacy to replace Trump’s Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tom Price, in January, an odd attack ad appeared, showing Ossoff, in his Georgetown days, dressed as Han Solo from “Star Wars,” for a spoof film made by Ossoff’s college a-cappella group. Paid for by the Congressional Leadership Fund, the ad was presumably meant to portray Ossoff, who most recently worked as a documentary filmmaker exposing judicial corruption and wartime atrocities, as young, unserious, and . . . a leader in the alliance to restore the Republic? Somehow, the ad did little to dissuade voters from considering the political novice: in the weeks since, he has risen to the head of an eighteen-candidate pack, garnering forty-five per cent of the vote in a poll released this past Friday.

As Ossoff and his eight-year-old foe performed their roadside lightsaber act, dozens of supporters raised handwritten signs, many of which read, “vote your ossoff!” Cars honked approval as they passed. A line cook from a nearby Waffle House appeared, in his apron, offering “free waffles to Ossoff voters!” (It was unclear whether the offer had his bosses’ approval, but the cook’s support was noted.) At one point, Ossoff’s chief Republican rival, Karen Handel, a former Secretary of State in Georgia who has also run, unsuccessfully, for the Republican nominations for governor and senator, drove by and stopped for a red light. A volunteer for Ossoff, not recognizing her, asked for her support. “I’ll be voting for myself,” Handel reportedly said.

Handel has the lead among the Republicans in the race, at between seventeen and twenty-one per cent, according to the latest polls. On Tuesday, Democrats, Republicans, and independents will all appear on one ballot. Unless one candidate captures a full fifty per cent of the vote, there will be a runoff between the top two finishers, on June 20th. Ossoff’s overall polling lead is formidable, but it also reflects a crowded conservative field that features pro-Trump Republicans, establishment Republicans, at least one vocally anti-Trump Republican, and a John Wayne-quoting Muslim Republican named Mohammad Ali Bhuiyan. Their résumés are just as varied: at a nonpartisan candidate forum and luncheon in late March, Handel and Ossoff were joined onstage by a former flight attendant, a Georgia State University Italian professor, a cardiologist, the Trump campaign’s “diversity chief,” and twelve others. Ossoff sat in the middle, looking not unlike a diligent schoolboy surrounded by disgruntled principals.

“If I had to put money on it, I’d say Ossoff is headed for a runoff against Karen Handel,” Jim Galloway, a longtime political columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, told me. She would be poised to become the first female Republican member of Congress from Georgia. “Ossoff is going to look for the support of college-educated women and independents,” Galloway said. “And they’re not going to be turned off by Handel.” Galloway said that he would be “mildly surprised” if Ossoff won outright on Tuesday.

At the forum, Handel—who is also the author of a book, “Planned Bullyhood,” about her time at the breast-cancer charity Susan G. Komen for the Cure and the organization’s relationship to Planned Parenthood—made her case for reducing corporate taxes and repealing Obamacare. Ossoff, meanwhile, said that he would seek to help improve Obamacare and generally delivered a fairly traditional Democratic message, with a dose of fiscal conservatism. “A country says a lot about its values and priorities in how it balances its books,” he said. “And, as we seek to achieve fiscal responsibility, to do so on the backs of folks who have no voice—low-income children or seniors—I think reflects the wrong set of priorities.” The Georgia Sixth, which is about seventy per cent white, is one of the wealthiest districts in the country.

Trump’s name rarely came up during the two-hour forum, though he loomed over everything. (Bruce LeVell, Trump’s diversity chief during the campaign, broke from the pack by invoking him explicitly, and approvingly: “I know Trump well,” he said, “and will help achieve his goals.”) Voters in the area tend to be less circumspect. When I walked around the district with Ossoff six weeks ago, it was clear that, while many voters didn’t know who Ossoff was or what, exactly, he stood for, they were certain in their dislike for Trump—and ready to vote for any reasonable candidate who would, to use one of Ossoff’s campaign slogans, “make Trump furious.” Back then, Ossoff insisted to me that he was focussed on local issues, not national politics. But he has kept up a steady beat of Trump criticism in his advertising. In one of his TV spots currently flooding Atlanta’s airwaves, Ossoff says, of the President, “He’s not only embarrassing us on the world stage—he could start an unnecessary war.”

Ossoff can afford to blanket local television in part thanks to the millions of dollars that have poured into his campaign from individual donors all over the country. Dozens of volunteers from outside the state have also come to Georgia to spread his message. Ossoff recently landed on the cover of New York magazine, which called him “The Trump-Hate Weather Vane,” and stories have also appeared in Time and The Atlantic. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has put ads on Atlanta radio featuring the actor Samuel L. Jackson, a Morehouse alum. (“We have to channel the great vengeance and furious anger we have for this Administration into votes at the ballot box,” Jackson says in the spot.) Meanwhile, the actress Alyssa Milano, currently filming a project in Atlanta, drove Ossoff supporters to vote early during her downtime. The band Imagine Dragons has given the campaign permission to use one of its songs—its drummer, Daniel Platzman, was in Ossoff’s high-school class—though it hasn’t appeared in an ad yet.

That kind of national, Hollywood attention may have a mixed effect. In another special election, Republicans held onto a contested congressional seat in Kansas when the state treasurer Ron Estes beat the Democratic political newcomer and civil-rights lawyer James Thompson by just seven points. Thompson, unlike Ossoff, had just a few hundred thousand dollars at his campaign’s disposal, and tougher math to deal with: Trump had won Kansas’s Fourth District by twenty-seven points in November, while the President only took Georgia’s Sixth by one. But some observers have argued that the absence of outsiders meddling in the Kansas election may have actually helped Thompson, who concentrated much of his criticism on Kansas’s unpopular Republican governor, Sam Brownback. After the race, Thompson credited Trump with securing his opponent’s victory. (On Sunday night, Trump tweeted, “The recent Kansas election (Congress) was a really big media event, until the Republicans won. Now they play the same game with Georgia-BAD!”)

Few of the Republicans in the Georgia race have loudly embraced the President. But just one of the eleven, the local energy entrepreneur David Abroms, who has been polling below two per cent, has disclosed that he voted for someone other than Trump last November. (He opted for the independent candidate Evan McMullin.) Abroms was also the only Republican candidate to object when another anti-Ossoff ad recently tried to make hay of the fact that Ossoff’s documentary production company has done work for the television network Al Jazeera, which the ad called “a mouthpiece for terrorists.” It went on, about Ossoff, “What is he hiding, and how can we trust him?” Republicans have also raised the issue of trust by suggesting, more plausibly, that Ossoff may have overstated the extent of his national-security experience as a staffer with Democratic Representative Hank Johnson. (Johnson and his former chief of staff have defended Ossoff’s characterization of his work.)

So far, at least, the Al Jazeera ad doesn’t appear to have hurt Ossoff any more than the “Star Wars” spot did. On that street corner earlier this month, when the lightsabering had ceased, and just a few minutes before Ossoff left for another rally in a different part of the district, a man who looked roughly Ossoff’s age walked up to the crowd. He wore a baseball cap and a Selena Gomez T-shirt. “Scott!” Ossoff exclaimed, recognizing an old a-cappella buddy. Ossoff turned back to the small crowd, smiling. “Scott played Vader in . . . the film,” he said. I chatted with Scott, who now works in insurance and had happened to be driving by the rally, before he left. “You put a Darth Vader mask on one time,” he said, “and this is what happens!”

Donald Trump attacks top Democrat in Georgia race, misleads on Jon Ossoff's immigration stance

A day before a special election in Georgia to replace former U.S. Rep. Tom Price, President Donald Trump went on Twitter to criticize the top Democratic contender.

"The super Liberal Democrat in the Georgia Congressioal (sic) race tomorrow wants to protect criminals, allow illegal immigration and raise taxes!" Trump tweeted April 17.

Eighteen candidates from all parties are seeking Atlanta’s 6th Congressional District seat, which Republicans have held for decades and is now up for grabs after Price joined the Trump administration as secretary of Health and Human Services.

While Trump did not explicitly name Jon Ossoff in his tweet, the 30-year-old Democrat has emerged as the leading contender in the closely-watched race.

In his tweet, Trump inaccurately characterized Ossoff’s immigration stance. The candidate has spoken in favor of securing the U.S. borders.

The White House did not provide comment.

Ossoff dismissed Trump’s tweet.

"While I’m glad the president is interested in the race, he is misinformed," Ossoff said in a statement.

At an April 9 candidate forum, Ossoff spoke in favor of securing the borders. He did, however, have harsh words for Trump’s immigration promise to deport all undocumented immigrants.

"The notion that we are going to massively deport more than 11 million people is absurd. There is no way a program like that could be implemented constitutionally, in a way that is fiscally responsible or in a way that is humane," Ossoff said. "The only real solution is comprehensive immigration reform that secures our borders and provides a path to legal status for non-felons who are here without proper documentation."

That message is also delivered in a civil rights and liberties section on his campaign website.

"America needs a strong border policy that protects American citizens and American jobs," the section said. "We should welcome those strivers who, like our own forebears, seek the opportunity to work hard, play by the rules, and build better lives in America."

Ossoff also scoffed at another idea Trump floated during the presidential campaign. Ossoff’s campaign website says he believes "it’s unconstitutional to ban anyone from entering our country on religious grounds."

Trump’s executive orders to temporarily stop the entry of individuals from certain countries have been criticized by immigrant advocates and Democrats as a "Muslim ban." (Those orders have been halted by courts.)

NumbersUSA, an advocacy group that promotes reduced immigration, rates candidates on a wide range of issues, such as their position on amnesty, ending birthright citizenship and border security.

On whether Ossoff is on the side to secure the border, NumbersUSA gave Ossoff a "Yes" rating.

NumbersUSA said it bases its ratings on responses to its survey or on candidate statements on campaign websites and in news reports.

Trump’s tweet called out Ossoff for wanting to "protect criminals" and "raise taxes." But those characterizations also misrepresent the facts.

Ossoff’s campaign website said he would work to empower law enforcement with tools and resources needed to bring down organized criminals, but would also seek to reduce mass incarceration of nonviolent offenders. Ossoff also said he would work to "reduce the tax burden on small businesses and simplify small business tax filing."

Our ruling

In a tweet alluding to Ossoff, Trump tweeted that Ossoff wants to "allow illegal immigration."

Trump’s vague attack mischaracterizes Ossoff’s stance.

Unlike Trump’s plan, Ossoff’s approach to immigration includes a path to citizenship or legal status for immigrants here without permission. Ossoff has also criticized Trump’s one-time promise to deport all immigrants in the country illegally as not feasible.

Trump neglects that Ossoff supports strong border security — to prevent illegal immigration.

We rate Trump’s statement Mostly False.

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