The race for Georgia governor couldn’t be closer just two months before the election, as an Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 Action News poll showed Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp deadlocked at 45 percent.
The poll of likely November voters showed the two rivals are fighting to win over a sliver of the electorate: Just 8 percent of the respondents were undecided, and an additional 2 percent support Libertarian Ted Metz.
The close nature of the race could be an indicator of the enthusiasm mounting behind Democrats trying to flip the state’s top office for the first time since 2002, propelled by Abrams’ embrace of progressive issues in her bid to become the nation’s first black woman elected governor.
But Democrats need only to look to the last statewide election for a cautionary tale. Jason Carter was also tied with Republican Gov. Nathan Deal in several polls at this stage of the race in 2014, only to fall behind as GOP candidates gained strength in the final stretch.
The poll also points to the limits of President Donald Trump’s popularity in the state. Trump won Georgia by 5 percentage points in 2016 and his surprise endorsement in July helped fuel Kemp’s runaway runoff victory, but his approval ratings are underwater in Georgia.
About 42 percent of likely Georgia voters approve of his performance in the White House, compared with 51 percent who disapprove. Roughly 7 percent didn’t know or refused to answer the survey, which was the second AJC poll this year to show Trump’s approval ratings below 50 percent in Georgia.
The findings illustrated the deep partisan divide over Trump, who remains solidly popular among his party’s base, garnering an 85 percent approval rating from Georgia Republicans. But just one-quarter of independents and only 2 percent of Democrats gave him high marks.
Although Kemp is still relying on the White House’s help — Vice President Mike Pence will host a fundraiser for him next week — he has tried to moderate his image for a broader electorate. These days, he’s more likely to mention Deal on the campaign trail than Trump.
The poll offers a reason for that shift. About 63 percent of voters approve of Deal’s performance, while only 1 in 5 disapprove. The high marks came from across the political spectrum, with nearly half of Democrats and 64 percent of independents giving the governor favorable reviews.
The poll of 1,020 likely voters was conducted Aug. 26 to Sept. 4 by the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs. The margin of error is 3.1 percentage points.
The findings offer clues about how Abrams and Kemp will lean into the next two months of campaigning.
After bruising primaries that led to landslide victories, both candidates have effectively locked down their bases, with roughly 9 in 10 Democrats backing Abrams and a similar proportion of Republicans behind Kemp.
The bigger question is how each candidate on opposite ends of many of Georgia’s biggest political divides, from tricky social issues to wonky tax policy, woos the relatively small number of undecided voters.
About 14 percent of independent voters — traditionally Georgia’s biggest ideological bloc — aren’t yet committed to a candidate. And many of them consider themselves moderates or conservatives.
Sandra Atkinson, who owns an antique shop in Lawrenceville, was one of those undecided voters until recently. She said she’s leaning toward Kemp because of his opposition to the expansion of Medicaid, a policy that Abrams unequivocally supports.
“That’s the main reason I’m against her,” she said, adding: “That’s my only thing that I see with Abrams that I don’t agree with.”
Abrams’ campaign has increasingly relied on her economic platform to broaden her appeal, and interviews with several survey respondents echoed her policies. Tony Daniels, a sales representative in Valdosta, said he’s backing Abrams because “she speaks for the downtrodden.”
“We need more jobs — high-paying jobs — and entrepreneurial programs in Georgia,” he said. “The only way you lift people out of poverty is to bring better jobs to the state. We need government to uplift the small businessman, and she’ll do that.”
Despite spending millions of dollars on TV ads in the most expensive race for governor in state history, each candidate must work to boost his or her likability. About one-quarter of voters have an unfavorable opinion of Abrams and nearly one-third holds that view of Kemp.
And the poll serves as a sharp reminder why both candidates are emphasizing pocketbook issues such as jobs and health care — rather than divisive cultural debates — in the closing stretch of the race.
About one-quarter of respondents labeled the economy the most important factor in their decisions, followed by health care and the quality of public schools. The only other of the eight factors to crack double digits was immigration, while other issues such as “religious liberty” and gun laws ranked lower.
The partisan breakdown showed a sharper split. The top issue among Republicans was also the economy followed by immigration. Democrats said their most important factor was health care, while independents pointed to public school education.
Still, the poll shows most voters feel good about the state.
Nearly three-quarters of voters are very or somewhat satisfied with the way things are going in Georgia, including about 90 percent of Republicans and a majority of Democrats. Almost two-thirds of the poll respondents said the state’s economy was good or excellent; only 6.5 percent described it as poor.
“Georgia is headed in the right direction,” said Jim Smiley, a Tucker retiree who was among those who said they were peachy about the state’s future. “Our economy is growing, and I’m happy with the improvement of our schools. We’re going to see more growth headed this way.”