Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson (from left), Libertarian Allen Buckley and Democrat Jim Barksdale shake hands Friday during their lone candidates debate. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll released Friday shows Isakson with 47 percent of the vote to 32 percent for Barksdale and 11 percent for Buckley. To avoid a runoff, the leading candidate must gain at least 50 percent plus one vote. BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

Johnny Isakson leads big in Georgia’s Senate race, but runoff possible

Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson maintains a commanding lead over his competitors in Georgia’s three-man U.S. Senate race, according to a new Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll released Friday, but the contest would head into a runoff if the election were held today.

The survey shows Isakson with 47 percent support among likely Georgia voters. That puts the two-term incumbent a full 15 percentage points ahead of Democrat Jim Barksdale but still below the critical 50 percent plus 1 benchmark needed to avoid a runoff.

Libertarian Allen Buckley notched 11 percent support, according to the poll. Seven percent of likely voters said they had no opinion about the race, which has largely flown under the political radar this year. Even among Georgia voters who told pollsters they knew who they would support, many admitted they knew little about the three candidates.

The survey shows Isakson with a firm lead among virtually every demographic in Georgia, including both genders and every age group and income level. Barksdale, a political newbie who has struggled to build momentum and name recognition, polled best among Democrats, African-Americans and people who live in metro Atlanta.

“To be completely honest, I know nothing about the Senate race. I’m just going to vote for whatever the Democratic option is on the ballot,” said Ansley Hobbs, a 22-year-old software consultant from Atlanta.

Notably, Isakson was able to split the ticket for 18 percent of voters surveyed who said they planned to support Hillary Clinton for president. The Republican used his first two ads of the general election cycle to reach out to Democrats by emphasizing two bipartisan measures he shepherded to passage on Capitol Hill.

“I’ve always liked Johnny Isakson even though he’s a Republican,” said Marilyn Weaver, a 58-year-old retiree from Decatur who identifies as a Democrat. “I think he supports the right ideas for the country and for the state that he represents.”

But the two-term incumbent still has work to do to avoid a runoff, which would occur between the race’s top two finishers on Jan. 10 if no candidate wins a majority of the vote on Nov. 8. Isakson’s campaign is very much looking to avoid that scenario, which would prove to be costly and time-consuming, especially if control of the U.S. Senate hangs in the balance.

Isakson has maintained firm control of the race throughout its duration. While his support was down 1 percentage point in this survey compared with the last AJC poll conducted in August, he widened his lead over Barksdale by a full 9 percentage points. That August poll did not include Buckley as an option.

On the campaign trail, Isakson has focused his messaging on his Washington work while largely keeping Barksdale, Buckley and Donald Trump at arm’s length.

“We are humbled by the support of so many Georgians; however our campaign for more jobs, reducing burdensome regulations and a more secure America will not rest until the polls close on November 8th,” Isakson said in a statement.

A Barksdale spokesman underscored Isakson’s performance below 50 percent despite four decades in elected Georgia politics.

“Clearly, Georgians are uncomfortable with Senator Isakson,” Gregory Minchak said, “and this race is on track to get very interesting as we enter the home stretch.”

The AJC poll was conducted Monday through Thursday by ABT SRBI and included 1,003 registered voters, including 839 likely voters. The margin of error for the registered voter sample is 3.9 percentage points. For the likely voter sample, it is 4.26 percentage points.

James Sweat works for a manufacturing company in Douglas. He’s voting for Trump for president because he likes the idea of nonpoliticians shaking up the status quo, and he said he plans to vote for Buckley.

“I really don’t know nothing about him, but he sounds like he might do a good job,” said Sweat, 53.

Buckley’s campaign manager said the Libertarian’s double-digit support is notable for a third-party candidate.

“We attribute this to real doubts Georgia voters have about Johnny Isakson’s voting record,” Travis Klavohn said. “We expect Allen Buckley’s polling to increase as voters learn about his policies compared to Johnny Isakson’s voting record.”

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