The poll, conducted for the AJC by the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs, was released days after the Vermont U.S. senator vowed to stay in the race despite a drubbing by Biden in recent contests across the nation.
The survey also found a tight Democratic race in the competition to challenge U.S. Sen. David Perdue, a first-term Republican with close ties to President Donald Trump.
Jon Ossoff, an investigative journalist and former 6th Congressional District candidate, leads the field with roughly one-third of the vote. His two most prominent opponents, Sarah Riggs Amico and former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, each tallied about 15% of the vote.
But the plurality of likely Democratic primary voters — about 39% — are still undecided nearly two months before an election that’s been upended by the outbreak of a disease that’s effectively ground traditional campaigns to a halt.
That means the Democratic race for Perdue’s U.S. Senate seat is essentially wide open, as candidates try to navigate how to reach out to voters when health officials are issuing escalating warnings about the growing threat of the illness.
If no candidate gets a majority of the vote, the two top finishers square off in a July runoff to decide who faces Perdue — a possibility the poll suggests is likely in a race transformed by the pandemic.
That race is separate from Georgia’s other Senate contest, which features a free-for-all pitting U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler against 20 challengers who will all be on the November ballot. That race, too, seems destined for a runoff in January to decide Georgia’s next senator.
The survey was conducted March 4-14 and included 807 likely Democratic primary voters. It has a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points.
‘The most important thing’
Sanders always faced steep challenges in Georgia, where he was routed by Hillary Clinton in 2016. But with his path to the presidency narrowing after a series of defeats in coast-to-coast contests this month, the AJC poll delivers more tough news for his struggling campaign.
Biden topped Sanders in nearly every category in Georgia. He led Sanders among college-educated voters (57%), those with high school education or less (75%), men (65%), women (66%) and across every socio-economic level that was polled.
But his most reliable support was among black voters who fueled his blowout victories in other Southern states. The AJC poll showed 71% of black voters in Georgia backed Biden over 16% for Sanders, who used Atlanta as a staging ground to roll out plans to shore up historically black colleges.
One of the reasons for Biden’s deep level of loyalty: About 78% of Democratic voters say Biden has the best chance of winning in November, while only 14% feel the same about Sanders.
And roughly three-quarters of Georgia Democrats say Biden has the best chance of uniting the country and helping down-ballot candidates.
“He’s able to reach across party lines to work with the other side more than Bernie,” said Dexter Benning, a retired military veteran from Barrow County.
“The other side would be resistant to some of Bernie’s ideas because they label him as a socialist,” Benning said. “And Joe has the opportunity to appeal to the Republican Party to get more done.”
Democrats who responded to the poll said it’s more important to pick a nominee who stands the best chance of defeating Trump (57%) than someone who shares their position on major issues.
“He is the best candidate to defeat the current incumbent,” said Jack Harvey, a Peachtree Corners retiree who drives for Uber part time, “and that is the most important thing for the country right now.”
And 58% of voters would rather see the presidential nominee advocate for more incremental policies that stand a better chance of passing than push for sweeping changes that they see as more aspirational. That’s a rebuke to Sanders’ call for a political “revolution” to transform the status quo.
Consider Cleo Creech one of the torn Georgia voters. He’s a reliable Democratic voter who agrees most with Sanders’ platform but is still leaning toward casting a ballot for Biden.
“I do like Bernie’s policies and his stands on things, and I think that is what we need to be going or heading toward,” said Creech, who lives in Atlanta.
“I hate to say this,” he said, “but I think Biden is more electable.”
The Democratic race for Perdue’s seat has so far been a more subdued contest than the all-out brawl to compete against Loeffler, a financial executive and political newcomer who was appointed to fill retired U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s post in December.
With Democrats largely abstaining from openly pummeling one another, Ossoff has emerged as the front-runner to challenge Perdue thanks partly to his high name recognition in metro Atlanta.
His campaign shattered fundraising records during a 2017 U.S. House special election that he narrowly lost to Republican Karen Handel, and some Democrats cited that nationally watched contest in interviews.
“Anybody is better than the Republican,” said Dinon Phillip, a state employee from Stone Mountain who fondly recalled Ossoff’s bid for Congress three years ago. “When he ran the first time, I believed in the policies he wanted to implement.”
The AJC poll shows he leads among men (33%), women (30%), older voters, the wealthiest voters (49%) and white voters (42%). The margins are closer among black voters: Ossoff has 26% support, Tomlinson 17% and Amico 16%.
But a large bloc of voters remains undecided, including roughly 42% of black voters and more than half of older voters, traditionally the most loyal of Georgia voters.
Count Joseph Millay among those still up in the air. The Powder Springs resident said he wants to hear more about the platforms of each of the three top Democrats before deciding which one he will support.
But he’s already determined who will not earn his vote. Six years ago, he cast a ballot for Perdue. Now he’s vowing not to back Perdue because of his close alliance with Trump.
“I think he has a very poor voting record when it comes to taking actions that are good for the state or the country,” Millay said of Perdue. “He simply votes the way Donald Trump seems to want to go, and that’s a big disappointment for me. I had high hopes for David Perdue.”
AJC POLL OF DEMOCRATS
The poll, conducted March 4-14 for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution by the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs, contacted 807 likely Democratic primary voters. It has a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points.
If the Democratic primary for president were being held today, for whom would you vote?
Joe Biden — 66%
Bernie Sanders — 22%
Tulsi Gabbard — 1%
Other — 0%
Undecided — 12%
The state Democratic primary in May will decide which candidate will challenge Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue. For whom would you vote?
Jon Ossoff — 31%
Teresa Tomlinson — 16%
Sarah Riggs Amico — 15%
Undecided — 39%
How the AJC poll was conducted
The AJC poll was conducted March 4-14 and included a total of 807 likely Democratic Primary voters in Georgia. Likely Democratic primary voters were respondents who had voted in one or more of the following elections: the 2016 Democratic Primary, the 2018 Democratic Primary or the 2016 Democratic presidential preference primary; who indicated they were currently registered to vote in Georgia and were definitely or probably going to vote in the 2020 Democratic presidential preference primary.
The survey was administered by the School of Public and International Affairs Survey Research Center at the University of Georgia. Interviews were conducted in English. The calls were made from a statewide random sample consisting of approximately 65% cellphone numbers and 35% landline numbers that was obtained through L2 (L2 is a sampling vendor that maintains a database constructed from state voter registration lists. Through commercial sources, phone numbers have been added to the individual records (registrants) that make up these lists).
The survey results were weighted in order to ensure the sample was representative of the Democratic primary electorate in terms of race, sex, age and education. The calculated margin of error for the total sample is +/-3.4 points at the 95% confidence level. This would mean that if 50% of respondents indicate a topline view on an issue, we can be 95% confident that the population’s view on that issue is somewhere between 46.6% and 53.4%.