Poll: governor’s race a tossup; Senate contest close

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It’s a big year for politics in Georgia, with a governor up for re-election and an open U.S. Senate seat. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is following it every step of the way.

Georgia Democrats are running close races against Republicans at the top of the ticket this year but must overcome an enthusiasm gap in order to win, according to an exclusive poll for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The governor’s race is a dead heat. Including voters who lean toward one candidate, 43 percent of likely voters back the Republican incumbent, Nathan Deal. Democrat Jason Carter holds 42 percent, and Libertarian Andrew Hunt brings in 7 percent.

In the U.S. Senate race, Republican David Perdue holds a small lead, at 45 percent, compared with 41 percent for Democrat Michelle Nunn and 6 percent for Libertarian Amanda Swafford, including leaners. Perdue’s advantage is at the edge of the poll’s 4 percentage point margin of error.

But Republicans’ core position is slightly stronger. Among voters who have definitely picked a candidate, Deal leads Carter, 42 percent to 40 percent; and Perdue leads Nunn, 44 percent to 38 percent.

The African-American share of likely voters in the poll was just 24 percent, despite forming 30 percent of the registered voter sample. That was because the poll’s tight screen for likely voters eliminated those who indicated that they were less engaged in the race or less likely to vote.

“A lot here is going to depend on turnout, and if this is any indication, the black vote overall is not fully mobilized at this point,” said Mark Schulman, the chief research officer at Abt SRBI of New York, which conducted the poll Monday through Thursday. “And that’s critical.”

African-Americans are a vital voting bloc for Democrats. They formed 28 percent of Georgia’s electorate in 2010 and 30 percent in 2012. Democrats have mounted a large mobilization effort this year with the goal of bringing the African-American share of the vote closer to 30 percent.

It’s a difficult task, as the electorate tends to be older and whiter in midterm election years and the nation’s first African-American president, Barack Obama, is not on the ballot.

Last week provided a vivid illustration of how heated the mobilization efforts can get.

First lady Michelle Obama traveled to Atlanta on Monday and called on Democrats to "step up" at a voter registration rally. DeKalb, Fulton and Lowndes counties announced plans to allow early voting the Sunday before the election — traditionally a big day for black churches to get "souls to the polls" — a move that Deal criticized as "partisan."

Then a major effort to register new voters headed by state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, and the Rev. Raphael Warnock of Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church was hit with allegations of fraud by Secretary of State Brian Kemp.

Abrams, who has close ties to the Nunn campaign, and Warnock said there were some unintentional mistakes on voter registration applications, and they accused the Republican Kemp of trying to suppress Democratic votes.

Democrats are hoping the fact that the races are close will draw more casual base voters to the polls.

“I hear people talking; I just feel like it’s going to be a tight race with the people that are running,” said Gloria Lindsey, 74, of DeKalb County, who is African-American. “Especially Carter for governor. He’s young. We need somebody with bright ideas instead of getting older people that are already tired out.”

Both races have attracted national attention because of the challenge to Republicans’ recent dominance of Georgia. And the race to replace retiring Republican U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss could decide who controls the closely divided chamber.

Democrats also are mounting a high-profile legacy ticket. Carter, a state senator, is a grandson of former President Jimmy Carter. Nunn, a nonprofit executive, is the daughter of former Democratic U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn.

Deal remains well below the incumbent’s 50 percent threshold of safety in an AJC poll for the third time this year, and he trails Perdue on the Republican ticket. Yet Deal retains a 52 percent approval rating, with 37 percent disapproval.

The incumbent has been dogged by the still-unraveling 2010 ethics case against him, as well as lagging unemployment numbers.

“I feel drawn to vote mainly because of the gubernatorial race,” said Amanda Duke, 31, of Newnan, who plans to vote Democratic. “I don’t think Nathan Deal has done too much that’s been good. And the whole lying about things and covering up whistleblowers doesn’t sit very well with me. But also the economy, those sorts of things, he seems to be more concerned with what would benefit him and his friends opposed to what would benefit the people.”

One factor working against Democrats, the poll found, is the president. Obama carries a 38 percent approval rating in Georgia, with 58 percent disapproval.

Only 19 percent of white voters approve of the president. Carter and Nunn pull 27 percent and 25 percent of the white vote, respectively.

“For me, it’s just a simple point behind the fact that I’m not going to vote for anybody who aligns themselves with the current commander in chief,” said Phil Ledbetter, 29, of Rockdale County, who plans to vote Republican. “Mr. Obama has been a horrible president.”

Perdue's rhetoric and Republican attack ads against Nunn have focused on Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. Nunn has tried to separate herself from unpopular national Democrats on issues such as the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which she supports.

The Republicans perform strongest with men, in North Georgia and among voters with a household income above $100,000. Democrats score better with women, in metro Atlanta and among voters with less than $50,000 in household income.

On the issues, Carter gets more backing from voters who care a lot about transportation and education. Deal, meanwhile, holds an edge on taxes. Carter has made increasing education funding a key campaign plank, while Deal says tax cuts under his administration have helped boost the economy.

The economy remains the top issue on voters’ minds, with more than 90 percent of respondents rating it as extremely important or very important to how they gauge candidates.

“I tend to lean toward someone thinking about business and not thinking about social issues like gays and lesbians,” said Melissa Mueller, 38, of Lawrenceville. “That’s not important.”

Mueller, whose family runs a motorcycle dealership, said she planned to vote Republican and admired Perdue for his long career in the business world, most recently as CEO of Dollar General.

Voters most concerned about the economy and the new health care law did not show a strong lean one way or the other in the key races, though.

Republicans do hold the edge among those who are most engaged on foreign policy. With continued strife around the world, including a new U.S. war against the militant group the Islamic State, 76 percent of respondents said foreign affairs would be extremely important or very important to their choices in the Senate race — and they are more likely to be Perdue voters.

Both Perdue, a businessman and cousin of former Gov. Sonny Perdue, and Nunn have staked out fairly hawkish views, with Nunn following the path of her father, who was chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

With both races close and Libertarians taking a small but significant chunk of the vote, runoffs in December for the governor’s race and January for the Senate remain a possibility.

“Libertarians in both races are siphoning off voters, probably from the Republican side, and you have the 50 percent threshold” for a victory, Schulman said. “So all of these races are highly competitive. The November election may amount to only round one, depending if the Libertarian vote melts away on Election Day.”

Historically, Libertarians perform better in pre-election polls than at the ballot box, when voters shift more to the two major parties. But at this point, Hunt and Swafford could be spoilers.

“Basically, I’ve given up on the Republicans and the Democrats altogether,” said poll respondent Cindy Sutton, 51, of Kennesaw, who plans to vote Libertarian.

“Nobody is getting anything done, and there needs to be some new blood in there,” Sutton said. “I like a lot of what Libertarians stand for. I don’t agree with everything, but that’s with any party.”

When asked about party identification, 33 percent identified as Democrats, 30 percent as Republicans and 26 percent as independents. But when asked which way they more often lean, the Republican share jumped to 47 percent, compared with 42 percent for Democrats.

On ideology, 52 percent described themselves as conservative, 24 percent as moderate and 21 percent as liberal.

The statewide poll of 884 likely voters was conducted with live calls to a mix of land-line and cellphones.