GA Sixth District race is a dead heat, bellwether for national races, say Emory experts

June 15, 2017

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Megan McRainey
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Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District race between veteran GOP candidate Karen Handel and Democratic newcomer John Ossoff is officially the most expensive House race ever and has attracted intense national attention. Despite heavy spending by Ossoff’s campaign and a steady stream of high-profile GOP endorsements for Handel, the race is still too close to predict, say political experts at Emory University.

Andra Gillespie, associate professor of political science and an expert in voter mobilization, says the very close race will likely hinge on get out the vote (GOTV) efforts.

“It’s not surprising that the race is a statistical tie. Hopefully this spurs both candidates to do all they can to organize their GOTV efforts. Despite the numerical disadvantage Ossoff has (in terms of probable numbers of Democrats in the district), the fact that this is a lower turnout election (i.e. lower than a traditional November election - remember, last month’s turnout was a record turnout of about 44%) means that if Ossoff can harness Democratic excitement and target them to boost their turnout, he has a chance of winning. However, he should expect Handel to organize her base as well. Ultimately, this race is going to come down to whomever has the most organized field operation.

“The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has a poll that suggests that Sixth District voters were twice as likely to report having been contacted by Ossoff's campaign compared to Handel. I can't say that I'm surprised. Ossoff has to find Democratic voters in unexpected places. I suspect that Handel's strategy is to only touch known Republican voters in an attempt to not accidentally mobilize her opposition. In a race this close, though, both candidates have to double their efforts to maximize the chances that their bases turn out to vote.”

Alan Abramowitz, professor of political science and an expert in polling, says that while most polls show Ossoff with a slight lead, the race is essentially a dead heat.

“It’s close - I do think the margin will be within no more than four or five points, in all likelihood. I’d say Ossoff probably has a small advantage but it’s very close,” says Abramowitz.

The race has attracted a steady stream of high-profile politicians to the Atlanta area (President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Rep. Paul Ryan) and substantial financial backing from donors and PACs, so it’s clear that both parties view this election as important, says Abramowitz.

“The level of national interest is very unusual for a special election – it’s quite extraordinary. This is the first U.S. House seat vacated by a Republican where Democrats feel like they have a real chance of picking up a House seat. Republicans have come to believe that’s its important for them to hold on to this seat to demonstrate that President Trump’s approval ratings aren’t pulling Republicans down.

“Both sides see this as a test of the Democrats’ ability to capitalize on President Trump’s unpopularity, which sends a signal that Democrats may be able to take other seats and win back the House in 2018.”

Regardless of the race’s winner, the battle between Republicans and Democrats for Georgia’s Sixth District won’t be over after the election, says Abramowitz.

“Whoever wins the seat will have to defend it again next year. There could be a rematch. It’s likely it will be a hotly contested seat next November.”