The Jolt: A leaked GOP poll shows pandemic has robbed many Georgia voters of optimism

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Rarely is one given access to an all-but-real-time, statistical assessment of the risks a ruling political party exposes itself to when making decisions during a time of crisis. Nevertheless, that's what this Friday morning has brought us.

On Thursday, hoping to revitalize a reeling state economy, Gov. Brian Kemp lifted a shelter-at-home mandate for most Georgians, ending the state's most ambitious attempt to slow the reach of the coronavirus pandemic. From the AJC interview:

Kemp said the time had come to focus on economic recovery. He contended that, with increased testing and ample hospital beds, Georgia is ready to handle a surge in coronavirus cases, should it occur.

"What we've done has worked," Kemp said. "It's given us time to build our hospital infrastructure capacity, get ventilators and ramp up testing. That's what really drove our decision."

Three days earlier, a polling firm hired by the House Republican Caucus had completed a survey of nearly 600 likely general election voters – i.e., Democrats, Republicans and independents. Last night, one of your younger Insiders obtained a copy of the poll and its accompanying memo, and has posted the details here.

To get across the damage the Republican brand has suffered in Georgia, we're going a step further. Below are excerpts of the cold, verbatim assessment from Cygnal, the firm that conducted the three-day survey, which was completed April 27, as restaurants and movie theaters in Georgia were given the green light to open their doors.

It is written in the language of pollsters, but most of you should be able to make sense of it.

The consequences for many Republicans on the November ballot are mentioned, including Kemp, President Donald Trump, incumbent U.S. Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, the Republican who is challenging Loeffler.

But what the memo leads on is a lost sense of optimism among Georgia Republicans:

Right direction/wrong track has fallen from +18 to +5 among Georgia voters. Additionally, the generic ballot has dropped from R+5 to R+3. 30% of voters plan to vote at the polls on Election Day while 26% plan to vote early in person, and 28% will vote by mail or absentee.

Net favs for Trump, Kemp, and Loffler are underwater, while Collins is at +11. Since the November poll, Trump's net fav has gone down one point and Kemp's has cratered, falling 19 points from +10 to -9. Trump holds a slight lead over Biden (+1) on the Presidential ballot.

"Controlling the spread of the Coronavirus and returning life to normal" is the top priority for Georgia voters (35%) and Trump and Kemp aren't getting high marks on their responses. The Georgia General Assembly is barely breaking even with voters on this issue and many don't know what it's doing.

Many of the poor marks are likely a consequence of the mixed messaging Georgians have been exposed to over the last few weeks, with Governor Kemp pushing the state toward reopening, while local government officials – most prominently Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms – have urged all citizens to stay home. More:

60% of voters chose "public health" over "economic impact" as their main COVID-19 concern and more than two-thirds think the worst is yet to come or we're in the middle of it now. More than half think Georgia is opening back up too quickly and that social distancing should remain in place until more progress has been made.

In other words, Governor Kemp is currently stepping ahead of most voters in Georgia. If you had to whittle the sentiment of the electorate down to a bumper sticker, it would be this: “It’s the coronavirus, stupid.” Yet if the governor is right, if a viral relapse remains in a controllable range in Georgia, his actions will resonate far more favorably – and you can expect numbers like these to turn in his favor. We’ll probably know in four weeks or so.

But right now, the specific risk for the Georgia GOP is to the suburban/rural formula that has been essential to statewide victories:

…Right direction has fallen from +18 to +5 among Georgia voters. Compared to the November poll, the biggest drop in the generic ballot is rural voters, who were 70% for the GOP in November, but are now 61% for the GOP

…Suburban women overwhelmingly disapprove of Trump's handling while swing voters are statistically split. When it comes to Kemp, both groups very much disapprove of his handling of the Coronavirus. The General Assembly does better with these groups, with slight disapproval from suburban women and slight approval from swing voters.

And finally, below is an assessment of who has been financially hurt by the pandemic thus far. Note the lack of correlation between those whose income hasn’t suffered, and the need to keep up social distancing:

….63% of these voters haven't had their hours cut: 24% had no change in work status, 19% are working the same hours from home, and 20% were already retired. 11% lost their job or were furloughed. Men, young people, Republicans, Independents, rural and suburban dwellers, and high-income people are more likely to have had no change in work status. Change in work status/hours had little impact on their views toward opening businesses and ending social distancing.

***

One of your Insiders was asked on a radio show late Thursday just how sharp the partisan divide over Gov. Brian Kemp's coronavirus approach has reached.

Look no further to the dueling reactions to Thursday’s news that the Republican was lifting most of his shelter-in-place order after roughly a month. Within minutes, Democratic Party of Georgia chair Nikema Williams denounced it as a “dangerous game” that risked lives. Said Williams:

"It is reckless and irresponsible for Kemp to use Georgians as the guinea pigs in a public health experiment that will go wrong. Today's decision will have consequences — for our overworked health systems, for our struggling essential workers, and for our lives." 

Then came the retort from Georgia GOP chair David Shafer, who called his counterpart a name we don’t often hear in the political back-and-forth:

"The Governor has been guided by the best of science and medicine. I have complete confidence in him and his team, including Dr. Toomey. His strategy is working. The Democratic attacks are unhelpful, irresponsible, and frankly, ghoulish."

He didn’t mention it, but by “ghoulish” he might have been referring to spectacle that took place on Thursday.

A group called the GA Coalition 2 Save Lives and its allies staged a processional from an Atlanta funeral home to the Capitol, led by hearses and a solemn group of protesters on foot, to demonstrate against Kemp's decision. Photos are available in this Twitter thread. 

***

The number of Georgia voters requesting absentee ballots crossed the 1 million mark on Thursday, a tremendous increase in people voting from home amid challenges to make polling places safe during the pandemic, according to our AJC colleague Mark Niesse.

***

This morning, presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden finally addressed a sexual assault allegation made against him. "I want to address allegations by a former staffer that I engaged in misconduct 27 years ago," Biden said in a statement, before a scheduled appearance on MSNBC's "Morning Joe. " They aren't true. This never happened."

***

Stacey Abrams continued to make her very public case to be presidential presumptive Joe Biden's running mate on Friday with a new essay in the Foreign Affairs journal that hits at one of her greatest perceived weaknesses in her public jockeying for the role.

Specifically, the Georgia Democrat describes how a former state legislator steeped in domestic policy views diplomatic relations in the era of Donald Trump and the coronavirus pandemic.

***

Something to watch for over the weekend: Democrats in the Athens-Clarke and Oconee county area have been pressing Gov. Brian Kemp to fill the local vacancy for district attorney by Sunday, May 3 – which is sixth months before the Nov. 3 general election.

We have written about this before. In 2018, the state Legislature passed, and Gov. Nathan Deal signed, a law that puts district attorneys under the same replacement system that governs superior court and other judges. Even though district attorney races are partisan, and judicial elections are mostly nonpartisan.

Local prosecutor Ken Mauldin, who resigned effective Feb. 29. Democrats who have signed up for the contest include Deborah Gonzalez, a former state House member.

If the governor waits until at least Monday, the race for Western Circuit district attorney goes “poof.” It disappears, and won’t be held until November 2022, when Republicans could have a stronger position at the ballot box.