Polls show runoff is likely in Georgia special election

Democrat Jon Ossoff. Bob Andres/AJC.

Credit: Greg Bluestein

Credit: Greg Bluestein

Democrat Jon Ossoff. Bob Andres/AJC.

A pair of polls released days before the nationally-watched special election to represent a suburban Atlanta district suggest a runoff between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel is in the cards.

A WSB-TV poll released Friday shows Ossoff with 45 percent of the vote, below the majority mark he needs to hit on Tuesday to avoid a June 20 runoff, and gives Handel a comfortable lead over fellow Republicans.

An OpinionSavvy poll conducted for Fox 5 Atlanta shows a similar dynamic: Ossoff at about 42, Handel at 21 and the rest of the field lagging far behind.

These polls come with a big caveat that pollsters, analysts and the campaigns all concede: It's difficult to project the turnout model in any special election, but this 18-candidate vote is particularly onerous. Mark Rountree of Landmark Communications, which conducted the WSB poll, explains why:

"The hardest part for any pollster is the turnout model, and anybody who is telling you they are confident about their model is not telling the truth," he said. "This isn't a normal election, a normal primary or a normal special election. And there's more money being spent on this race than any Congressional special election I've ever seen."

But the polls give us a snapshot of the mood of the 6th District, which spans from east Cobb to north DeKalb. And they show Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state, starting to distance herself from a trio of top GOP rivals: Dan Moody, Judson Hill and Bob Gray.

Handel notched 17 percent of the vote in the Landmark poll, which has Gray, Hill and Moody hovering below double digits. The OpinionSavvy poll gives Handel a 10-point lead over her nearest rival, Hill, and shows Gray and Moody close behind him.

"Moody is undoubtedly the surprise: we fully expected him to crest north of 15 percent, but older voters have largely thrown their support behind more ‘establishment’ candidates, such as Hill and Handel," said Matt Towery, who heads OpinionSavvy.

Rountree said that the three have been hurt not only by Handel's high name recognition - she waged unsuccessful campaigns for governor and U.S. Senate - but also feuds with each other.

"Gray, Moody and Hill have been trying to pull her down but they also snipe at each other," he said. "They act like crabs in a pot and end up pulling each other down."

The district has been in GOP hands for decades and returned Tom Price to Congress every two years with landslide victories. But Donald Trump's struggles there - he carried it by less than 2 points - have given Democrats hope they can flip it. And Ossoff, a 30-year-old former Congressional aide, has emerged as a rising Democratic star with an unprecedented $8.3 million fundraising haul.

Some other findings from the polls:

  • The WSB poll shows Ossoff is winning millennial voters by wide margins, though Rountree noted they are also "the least reliable voting bloc in the electorate." Handel is doing the best with senior citizens - arguably the most reliable voting bloc.
  • The Fox poll shows Ossoff leading Handel by 2 points in a hypothetical head-to-head matchup, with another 13 percent voters undecided. That should raise alarm bells in the Handel camp, Towery wrote.
  • Rountree's research finds that there are 77,000 voters in the district who cast ballots in the last two GOP primaries. On the Democratic side, that number is just 17,000. "It tells you that Republicans have a huge potential upswing," he said. "But so far Democrats are battling hard to get their votes out and are having reasonable success."
  • Towery's poll shows that Ossoff has a commanding 63 percent lead among early voters, though his sample size was small.

More AJC coverage of the Sixth District race: