What an Ossoff Win Looks Like

Early voting has begun in the special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District—the Democratic Party’s best chance to score a symbolic victory this year. Recent special elections in Kansas and Montana suggest that Democratic voters are motivated to turn out, and polling gives Democrat Jon Ossoff the advantage. But contests like these can offer a cautionary tale when national expectations get ahead of the realities of a district. Before the votes are tallied, it’s important to remember that this is still a very Republican district and only a well-run, targeted campaign can overcome the natural Republican advantage here.

Expectations are Rising

After recent close calls, Democrats hope this race will demonstrate that momentum is on their side and that they can widen the playing field in 2018. One poll released May 22nd gave Ossoff a 7-point advantage over Republican Karen Handel, which if true would represent a remarkable turnaround in the district. Another more recent poll which was released Thursday, June 1st put the race as a dead heat with Ossoff leading Handel by 1-point (49 percent to 48 percent). In a previous article, we examined the results of 54 statewide non-federal contests in the 6th District from 2002 thru 2014, as well as the district results in federal contests for President, US Senator and US House of Representatives. In all, only one Democratic candidate—the 2002 Democratic Secretary of State candidate—won the major party vote. Despite Hillary Clinton’s 49.2 percent of the major party vote in 2016, this is still an area where Republicans are favored in almost any contest.

Revisiting the First Round

In May, Ossoff easily won a plurality of the votes in the first round of the special election. Overall, he received 48.5 percent of the votes cast, putting him just 1.5 points from winning the seat outright. While these are impressive numbers, Ossoff’s share in each of the three counties in the district trailed Clinton’s from last November.

County Secretary of State
(2002 General)
(2016 General)
(2017 1st Round)
Cobb 50.0% 42.1% 41.5%
DeKalb 62.7% 60.0% 59.2%
Fulton 49.3% 48.7% 48.0%

Set against the NCEC’s Democratic Performance Index (DPI)—a rolling average of Democratic performance over time—Ossoff well overperformed in all three counties, which showcases how much voter sentiment may be evolving. The question is, are there really enough swing voters out there to get to a majority?

This is Still Republican Country

The only portion of the 6th district that has a DPI over 50 percent is DeKalb County, which accounts for less than a quarter of the expected vote. But in a good sign preliminary early voting statistics show that 30.5 percent of the early vote has come from DeKalb while Cobb, Ossoff’s and Clinton’s worst county, has only contributed 23.7 percent of the early vote. Ossoff won a huge majority of the vote in DeKalb, and a respectable 48 percent in Fulton County—the most populous part of the district—and yet still fell short of a majority. Improving upon those numbers is no easy task.

As we mentioned earlier, the Democratic candidate for Secretary of State in 2002 was the only Democrat to win the 6th district—amassing 52.7 percent of the vote. While winning in Cobb County, the same candidate fared only slightly better than Clinton and Ossoff did in Fulton County. It will be difficult for Ossoff to carry Cobb County, so improvement across the board will be necessary.

What to Watch: Dunwoody

No Democratic candidate running in this district can focus exclusively on turning out their base. If Ossoff is going to win, he’ll need to improve on his margin in DeKalb County. We estimate he will need to break 60 percent of the major party vote in DeKalb. Most observers rightfully point to the Atlanta suburbs, but Ossoff actually outperformed Hillary there and received a smaller share of the vote in DeKalb overall. Particular emphasis needs to be placed on improving in the Dunwoody area—the second most populous portion of the county. Hillary Clinton outperformed Ossoff by 3 points there.

What to Watch: Sandy Springs

Similar to the pattern in DeKalb County, Ossoff actually outperformed Clinton in some of the more Democratic urban areas of Fulton County, such as Alpharetta and Johns Creek. But in Sandy Springs he fell 3 points short of Clinton’s margin—winning 55.6 percent of the major party vote as opposed to 58.6 percent for Clinton.

What to Watch: Elizabeth

Cobb County is quintessential rural Republican territory, with few Democratic leaning population centers. Two areas worth watching in this county are Elizabeth and Sope Creek, both traditionally very Republican localities that moved slightly to the Democrats in recent elections. Ossoff amassed 46.2 percent of the vote in Elizabeth, which exceeded Clinton’s 44.6 percent. Interestingly, the 2002 Secretary of State candidate receive 55 percent of the vote here in 2002.

Jon Ossoff has a real opportunity to win this district, but we believe that the final outcome may be closer to the most recent polling released on June 1st. The NCEC was proud to provide our data and expertise to the campaign, and we eagerly await the results.