Split-ticket voters helped Biden win Ga. Can they aid the GOP in the runoffs?

A defunct county located in what’s now the heart of Atlanta’s fast-changing northern suburbs offers a glimpse into a challenge facing Democrats — and a potential bright spot for Republicans — in the Jan. 5 Senate runoffs.

In November, Democrat Joe Biden carried by 5 percentage points what was once known as Milton County, now the cities of Alpharetta, Johns Creek, Roswell and Milton in north Fulton. But down-ticket was a blur.

In one of Georgia’s U.S. Senate races, voters narrowly backed Republican incumbent David Perdue over Democrat Jon Ossoff. In the other Senate contest, GOP candidates pulled roughly the same share of the vote as the Democrats combined, while down-ballot incumbents, including several Republican legislators, beat back serious challengers to win reelection.

Several factors may have contributed to the muddied election results in north Fulton. It’s possible right-leaning voters unhappy with Donald Trump skipped the presidential race entirely and voted only for down-ballot Republicans. Or Biden supporters backed the former vice president and then abstained from congressional and legislative races entirely.

But to some observers, including J. Miles Coleman, associate editor of the influential political newsletter Sabato’s Crystal Ball, the results suggest there was a notable number of suburbanites who split their tickets.

“That’s a dynamic that helped a lot of Republicans” down-ballot, said Coleman, who analyzed the former Milton County’s votes. “That’s one of the reasons why they may end up holding the Senate.”

Democrats can’t afford to have the same electorate turn out for the Senate runoffs, since Ossoff fell nearly 2 percentage points behind Perdue statewide and Democrats combined to win just 48% of the vote in the special election. Not only that, but a significant number of voters splitting their tickets between the two runoff races — backing the Rev. Raphael Warnock in one and Perdue in the other, for example — or only voting in one of the contests could be fatal since Democrats will need to flip both of Georgia’s U.S. Senate seats to give their party the tie-breaking vote in the upper chamber.

Overall, Atlanta’s suburbs were a bright spot for Biden and Georgia Democrats on election night. Surging turnout across nearly every demographic group, combined with distaste for Trump among moderate and right-leaning women, helped Democrats gain votes in a region that until recently was a Republican stronghold.

Democrats comfortably carried Cobb and Gwinnett. And Biden capitalized on recent changes in north Fulton to capture 52% of the vote, when as recently as eight years ago, GOP nominee Mitt Romney crushed President Barack Obama there by 31 points.

But precinct-level data in places like north Fulton and Cobb show Perdue consistently pulled in more votes than Trump, while Ossoff frequently ran behind Biden. (It’s harder to compare data from the special election that featured U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler because there were 20 candidates on the ballot.)

Statewide, Ossoff received roughly 100,000 fewer votes than Biden, while Perdue won about 800 more than Trump, making him one of only four incumbent GOP senators to best the president’s performance in November. (The others were Susan Collins of Maine and John Cornyn of Texas, who both won reelection, and Colorado’s Cory Gardner, who lost.)

“There’s a sense among these white suburban college-educated voters (that) ‘I may not like Trump but just give me some Republican I can vote for,’” said Coleman. “And I think we saw that.”

Overall, split-ticket voters appeared to be a narrow slice of November’s electorate. While we don’t know who exactly those voters were in Georgia, a recent national analysis from the Democratic polling firm Navigator Research paints a general picture.

Those who voted for Biden and then Republicans down-ballot, according to the firm’s survey, “are a relatively moderate and college-educated group who disliked Trump and disapproved of his pandemic response while showing more openness to his economic approach.”

There were also likely some voters who backed Trump but then voted for Democrats down-ballot. Navigator described those voters as “relatively conservative in their disposition and almost universally approved of how Trump has handled the economy, though they backed the president with some reservations while sticking with a Democrat down ballot.”

Both parties are primarily counting on their most reliable voters to turn out for the runoffs, but neither has turned its back on the suburbs. Republican messaging has emphasized the threat of socialism, and Democrats are focusing on health care and Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

None of the campaigns are expecting many voters to vote for a Democrat in one of the runoffs and a Republican in the other — especially with incumbents Perdue and Loeffler and challengers Ossoff and Warnock essentially acting as running mates. But it is possible that the margins in the runoffs end up being so tight that even a small bloc of voters could affect the outcome.

Democrats say the electorate will look different in the runoffs and that their supporters are fired up in a way they never have been before because of Biden’s win, the prospect of a Democratic Senate, and years of organizing in the suburbs. Ossoff and Warnock have each hosted rallies, yard sign pickup and get-out-the-vote events with local elected officials across suburban Atlanta in recent weeks.

Coleman said Warnock and Ossoff are smart to be running essentially as a joint ticket. They need to keep emphasizing what could be lost if a Republican majority can block Biden’s agenda in the Senate, he said.

Kerwin Swint, a political science professor at Kennesaw State University, believes Perdue and Loeffler can appeal to split-ticket voters by emphasizing that they’d be part of a GOP firewall to balance out Democratic control of the White House and House of Representatives.

“Historically, Americans sort of like divided government,” he said. “I think that’s an argument that could swing some people, particularly with the stakes of all Democrat control right now and what they have talked about doing in D.C. as far as filibuster, Supreme Court, the Green New Deal and things like that that are controversial to a lot of people.”

David Seawright, chief revenue officer of Deep Root, a data analytics firm that primarily works with Republican political candidates, said the Georgia campaigns that will do the best with swing-ticket voters are the ones that invested early in sophisticated data targeting programs that identify those voters and the issues that matter to them.

“The key in a race like this is that you need to have the infrastructure in place before any of this began,” said Seawright. “We’ve seen close races in Georgia already. There’s no reason to think that (the runoffs) couldn’t be similarly close, so all of these various things are going to matter a lot.”