Campaigns play to bases as early turnout surges

Georgia’s hotly contested and nationally watched races for governor and the U.S. Senate have prompted a surge of interest in early voting that is likely to carry into Election Day on Tuesday.

With new voters more likely to be racial minorities, the push bodes well for Democrats, but it is a gradual rise rather than a demographic tidal wave. In order to pull off any upsets, Democrats still must chip into Republicans’ huge edge with white voters, which polls show them struggling to do.

In the campaign’s closing days, Republicans and Democrats circled the state trying to rally their base voters to the polls. It is working.

Early vote numbers show increases from 2010, when the last midterm election was held. Through Thursday, 798,000 Georgians had voted — an increase of more than 23,000 over the 2010 early vote with one full day remaining.

African-Americans constituted 32 percent of those casting early ballots, while whites accounted for 62.5 percent. Analysts expect the Election Day vote to be somewhat whiter but say Democrats would still hit their goal of bumping African-Americans to 30 percent of the electorate.

The second half of the equation for Democratic victories is to capture 30 percent of the white vote, and polls have shown them falling short of that mark so far.

As their television ads flood the airwaves, fliers fill mailboxes and volunteers knock on doors, the top candidates are spending their final days on the campaign trail preaching to core supporters.

“It’s not about the message, it’s about machinery,” Republican U.S. Senate hopeful David Perdue said at a cafe in Cartersville. “Democrats are going to get their vote out. The question is, are we going to get our vote out?”

To that end, Perdue stumped through reliably Republican corners of the state early last week at a half-dozen stops per day, challenging crowds of 50 to 100 to get 10 friends to the polls. At each stop, former Georgia GOP Chairman Alec Poitevint implored crowds to help find their friends who have requested absentee ballots — more Republicans tend to vote absentee — and get them turned in.

Democratic U.S. Senate hopeful Michelle Nunn traveled through her party’s strongholds, often doing service projects or reading to schoolchildren in the hopes of getting on the television news in multiple media markets per day.

Nunn, on leave as CEO of the volunteer service nonprofit Points of Light, said the campaign has “thousands of volunteers out, not just reading to children, but knocking on doors, doing phone banking, letting people know to lift up their voice.”

Nunn has coined the phrase “multiplizer effect” when urging supporters, as she did Wednesday in Columbus, to “think about getting 10 more people,” before she was interrupted with: “20!”

“And 20!” she fired back “Help us with the multiplizer effect to win this election.”

Nunn has largely spent the closing days of the campaign meeting voters in restaurants — Pearly’s in Albany, Deorio’s Pizza in Columbus and the Rookery in Macon last week alone — or at planned events stocked with supporters.

She has mostly eschewed large-scale rallies unless invited as part of a slate of candidates, as she was early last week when the Democratic Party of Georgia held a gospel concert and get-out-the-vote rally, or on Friday with former President Bill Clinton. Both events were in Atlanta.

Gov. Nathan Deal and several of the state’s constitutional officers hit suburbs and rural areas on a bus tour last week. There was no Deal event in Augusta, for instance, but a trip to the GOP bastion of Evans outside of town.

“There was not a part of Georgia that was friendlier to Republicans than this one,” Deal said at a stop in Dahlonega. “And I know I could not be governor without you.”

Republicans in North Georgia reported anecdotally that people were more engaged after seeing polls showing the races so close.

State Rep. Steve Tarvin, R-Chickamauga, said he worried Republicans were too “complacent” after dominating statewide office for 12 years.

“People think everywhere in the state of Georgia is like here — 80 percent Republican,” Tarvin said, shaking his head.

That’s certainly not the case in East Point, where Maggie Touchton rattled off a list of instructions Thursday for the volunteer canvassers at the Democratic office. She directed them to a stack of packets listing voters they could contact.

“We ask three main important questions: Are you going to be voting Democrat this year?” she told them, “Have you thought about early voting? That ends tomorrow, so really push early voting. And do you want to come volunteer with us to turn Georgia blue and make history this year?”

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jason Carter showed up Thursday to thank Touchton and the other volunteers before going door to door with them and greeting voters in the surrounding East Point neighborhood off Main Street.

Later that day, he met with a spirited group in Stockbridge.

“Over the next five days we just have to keep that momentum going,” he told the crowd. “The way to do that is to make sure with every person that you see you say, ‘Hey, when are you voting?’”

He asked those who had already voted to raise their hands. Many hands shot up.

“Now you are responsible for somebody else,” he told them. “You have got to make sure that you go to the polls on Election Day and you take some folks with you.”

All the campaigns want to prevail Tuesday, but if no candidate can top 50 percent, runoff elections loom — Dec. 2 for governor and Jan. 6 for the U.S. Senate.

U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, a Republican from Ranger who spent two days last week on a recreational vehicle with Perdue in North Georgia, had a powerful pitch for “apolitical” folks.

“If you want nine more weeks of the television ads and phone calls, don’t vote,” Graves said in GOP-heavy Blue Ridge.

Whether the races go to overtime depends largely on the share of the Libertarian vote. Senate hopeful Amanda Swafford and the party’s candidate for governor, Andrew Hunt, each stole away at least 5 percent in a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll, which would be higher than normal.

Yet a poll released last week by Hicks Evaluation Group and Apache Political of people who have already voted showed the Libertarian vote melting away to 2 percent or less, a possible indication of voters reverting to the major parties.

One of them is Peg Rhone of Dawsonville.

“I am a Libertarian, but I’m not going to be a spoiler,” Rhone said. “And if it comes down to rubber stamping Obama or changing the course, I’m going to have to change the course. If the Libertarian Party got bigger and had more votes behind it, then I’d cast a vote there, but why throw away a vote?”

General elections have gone to runoffs in Georgia five times since 1992, and Republicans won all five.

The Rev. Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, has helped lead efforts to register and turn out more Democrats this year, and he says this cycle could end the streak.

“There is a great deal of excitement among our base,” Warnock said. “We hope to avoid a runoff — let me be very clear. But, ironically, a runoff might suggest to Democratic-leaning voters who are sitting on the fence about showing up. If Jason can force an incumbent into a runoff, I think it would send a very strong signal that we could win this.”

The ground game push by Warnock and others already has had an impact. Through Thursday, there were 192,000 early voters who did not vote at all in Georgia in 2010. The new voters were only 52 percent white, while 65 percent of those who also voted four years ago were white.

“This is what the Democrats needed to do with the early vote,” said Michael McDonald, an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida who closely tracks voting patterns across the country. “Mission accomplished for them, but for the Democrats, we still have to get through Election Day. Is this going to be enough to weather the storm on Election Day?”

Demographics alone won’t do it. Deal, for instance, won four years ago by 10 percentage points.

Getting enough swing voters to reach that milestone of 30 percent of the white vote has proved challenging. GOP pollster Mark Rountree of Landmark Communications said Democrats have hit 28 percent but will struggle to move further.

“It’s kind of like climbing Stone Mountain,” Rountree said. “It’s a pretty easy walk until you get to the last 10 minutes, and that’s a mighty steep hike.”

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Staff writers Aaron Gould Sheinin, Jeremy Redmon and Kristina Torres contributed to this article.