The race for Georgia governor is as close as it’s ever been according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 Action News poll released Thursday that heightens the possibility of a December runoff between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp.
The poll, conducted by the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs, has Abrams at 46.9 percent and Kemp at 46.7 percent, a statistical tie that’s within the poll’s margin of error of 3 percentage points.
It’s the third AJC/Channel 2 poll that shows the nationally watched contest is too close to call, and it mirrors other recent surveys that point to a Dec. 4 runoff if neither candidate gets the majority vote needed.
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Much depends on the performance of Libertarian Ted Metz, who tallies 1.6 percent of the vote, and roughly 5 percent of undecided voters. Trey Hood, the UGA political scientist who conducted the poll, said the race could tighten as the remaining undecided voters make up their minds.
“This race hasn’t opened up one way or another. But the 5 percent of undecided voters are either going to make the decision to vote — or not show up at all,” he said. “Mathematically, there could be a runoff, but it would have to be a super squeaker.”
President Donald Trump’s standing in Georgia remains the same as it was in last month’s poll: 46 percent, with a disapproval rating of 50 percent. His approval rating was 37 percent in January.
Though Kemp and Abrams have largely stuck to state-focused issues, Trump’s role looms large over the race. Kemp has tied himself to the president since entering the race last year, and he successfully lobbied for the president to visit Macon on Sunday to boost his campaign.
There’s a reason why: About 9 in 10 Republicans support Trump, along with 53 percent of moderates who lean to the ideological right. Kemp calls it a “base turnout election,” and his strategy hinges on driving conservatives to the polls, even if it alienates the liberals and independents who staunchly disapprove of the president.
Among Kemp’s target audience is Scott Carroll, a 51-year-old contractor in Bowdon who described himself as an on-the-fence voter who prefers conservatives and is not impressed with the Democratic brand.
“I don’t like the direction that Democrats are going. I’m afraid that a vote for her is really just a vote for the Democrats,” he said, referring to Abrams. “I used to feel like in politics you could vote for the person. But now with the environment that we live in, it’s hard to do that these days.”
A last glimpse
The poll offers a final glimpse at the trends that helped shape the race, including a gender gap that has sharpened. Kemp leads among men by a wide margin — 54.5 percent to 40.5 percent — while Abrams has a similar edge among women. He fares far better with white women, however, capturing about 63 percent of support.
Abrams, who would be the nation’s first black female governor, has staked her campaign on energizing left-leaning minority voters. She has the support of roughly 90 percent of black voters, while Kemp has more than two-thirds of support among the larger white electorate.
The Democrat also leads among independent voters, who made up only about 10 percent of the electorate, 53.5 percent to 25.4 percent. The relatively small margin of independents reflects the intense polarization of the race that has drawn both former President Barack Obama and Trump to major rallies in the closing days.
Antoinette Ward is a high school teacher from Savannah who considers herself on the “more liberal side of middle of the road.” She was turned off by Kemp’s shotgun ad and inspired by Abrams’ deal-making reputation and proposals aimed at helping lower-income Georgians.
“I don’t think that we can get many things fixed in any other area of society until we start paying attention to bottom-line things,” Ward said. “If we can get some stuff going with very practical jobs, getting back to the basics with education and things like that, I think we’ll see a lot of difference elsewhere.”
Down the ticket, the race for lieutenant governor is also close, with Republican Geoff Duncan at 46.9 percent and Democrat Sarah Riggs Amico at 44.8 percent, within the poll’s margin of error. About 8 percent of voters are undecided in that race.
The contest for secretary of state is also a statistical tie, with Democrat John Barrow at 42.1 percent and Republican Brad Raffensperger at 41.2 percent. Libertarian Smythe DuVal tallied 5.4 percent, while more than 11 percent of voters remain uncommitted.
What’s clearer in the poll is the high voter intensity on both sides of the aisle. Nearly 70 percent of voters say the midterm election is “much more important” or “more important” than past votes. That includes 68 percent of Republicans and three-quarters of Democrats.
That enthusiasm has driven early-vote participation to new heights. More than 1.5 million ballots have already been cast, more than double the turnout from the 2014 midterm. Turnout is soaring in both Democratic bastions and Republican strongholds.
Abrams and Kemp both hope the intense attention, coupled with late visits by heavyweights such as Obama and Trump, will help dampen Metz’s support and diminish the chance of a runoff. But their allies are quietly preparing for that possibility.
No general election race for governor has ever required a runoff, but Republicans have largely dominated the races that do go into overtime. The last took place in 2008, when U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss trounced Democrat Jim Martin in a runoff after he narrowly missed an outright win.
Another wrinkle: Gov. Nathan Deal has announced plans to call a special legislative session the week after the Nov. 6 vote to provide about $100 million in relief from Hurricane Michael and decide on a controversial tax break for jet fuel.
That would mean that Kemp, who has dismissed demands to resign as secretary of state, wouldn’t be able to raise cash for at least a week during a crucial time for his campaign. Georgia law prohibits constitutional officers and state lawmakers from soliciting donations when the General Assembly is in session.
Metz is eagerly inviting the possibility of a runoff vote. At the sole televised debate, he talked frequently about the benefits of industrial hemp and appealed to voters who were squeamish about Abrams and Kemp to hold their noses and vote for him instead.
“If you’re tired of the two-party system and the two-party tyranny of the oligarchs running the planet,” he said, “then a vote for me is a protest vote to show them that you are sick and tired of the same old stuff.”
If that’s the case, voters should prepare for another frenzy. The race is already attracting troves of national attention and record amounts of spending. A runoff would put the contest in rarefied air as one of the only December votes in the nation, bringing even more scrutiny.
Richard Robinson, a Dunwoody retiree, is bracing for that possibility. He calls himself a middle-of-the-road voter who is leaning toward Kemp in part because of his support of Deal. Of the prospect of a grueling runoff, he said all Georgians can do is “grin and bear it.”
“Politics has gotten to be not very pleasant anymore,” he said, adding: “But that’s life. You’ve got to go with what you’ve got.”