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Early data suggest diverse voting blocs could give Democrats the edge in Georgia runoffs

How racial identity could play a key role in securing victories for Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in tight Georgia Senate race.
Democratic Senate candidate Raphael Warnock at a drive-in rally in Savannah, Ga., on Sunday.Stephen B. Morton / AP

AUSTELL, Ga. — Jada Longchamp stood about 1,000 feet from the big campaign stage planted in one of the many mega parking lots in Cobb County, Georgia.

Longchamp, 54, had come both to hear Raphael Warnock speak and to bolster a friend’s pandemic-economy side hustle: T-shirts, tote bags and masks with text inspired by a conversation the two women had a few days after the presidential election about the political stakes in Georgia. The merchandise read “Georgia Saves America.”

“It’s one part wish and one part reminder that this is what we, the voters of Georgia, have it in our power to do,” she said.

The merchandise moved fast enough that 15 minutes into the Warnock rally in late December, she had just one tote bag and a few T-shirts left. The items also echoed a message that the nation’s top elected officials have all come to Georgia since Sunday to make.

The supporting evidence of America’s possible doom differs by party and in advertisements, door hangers and postcards, text messages, online banners, visits from political operatives, phone calls, clubhouse chats and Zoom calls. But it all ultimately boils down to the high stakes of this most unusual pair of Senate runoff elections.

More than 7.7 million people are registered to vote in Tuesday’s runoffs. The results will determine which party controls the Senate, and the policymaking abilities of the incoming Biden-Harris administration. Early voting, along with the first few hours of voting Tuesday, indicate that Georgia, a consistently red state that went to Democrat Joe Biden in the November general election, may continue to defy expectations.

Overall participation in runoff elections usually drops 40 to 60 percent from the most recent general election, said Bernard Fraga, an associate professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta. Republicans have historically been more likely to vote in runoff elections than Democrats. In Georgia, it appears that neither may hold true this year.

In a state where voters are asked to identify their race but not their party when they register, more than 85 percent of Black voters tend to vote for Democrats, while about 70 percent of white voters tend to support Republicans. Around the country but particularly in the South, party identification and race remain so closely linked that ballots cast so far in Georgia indicate that Democrats went into the runoff election with an edge.

Data made available by the state shows that more than 3 million people have cast early ballots in the two Senate runoff elections, according to an analysis of state early voting data compiled by TargetSmart, a political data firm that usually works for Democrats. That figure beats, by far, the most recent general election Senate runoff in 2008, when 2.1 million Georgians voted and a Republican Senate candidate prevailed. The number of early ballots cast in the current Senate runoff also indicates that about 20 percent fewer people in Georgia have voted early than they did in the November general election.

In the current runoff contests, 100,000 people who did not vote in November have also cast early ballots, said Tom Bonier, chief executive at TargetSmart. Most of these voters — by some estimates, more than 70,000 — registered to vote since November. And of the 100,000 voters who did not participate in November but who have cast an early ballot this time, about 40 percent were cast by Black voters.

In fact, while all early voter turnout in the Georgia runoff lags slightly behind that of early voting in the November general election, white voter participation has lagged more than that of Georgia's Black voters.

“There are a lot of Republicans in Georgia, so it is possible, at this point, for Republicans to win with big, big turnout on Election Day,” Bonier said. “There’s no denying that. But that’s what it would take to win. Republicans are in the unusual position of entering a runoff Election Day behind.”

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