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Georgia Runoff: What a Walker or Warnock Victory Would Look Like

A voting line that stretched into the distance in Atlanta on Friday.Credit…Dustin Chambers for The New York Times

Maybe it’s because I’m a former high school debater, but every few weeks I try to go through the mental exercise of imagining what I would write the day after an election — if either side won.

It can be an illuminating exercise. I did this every few weeks before the 2016 general election, and I was always struck by how easy it was to write a plausible post-election story explaining how and why Donald J. Trump would win the election. This year, it was also fairly easy to imagine how Democrats would fare well. In each case, it made it straightforward to explain the eventual result, even though each case seemed less likely than not.

Today’s Georgia runoff is a very different case. The election seems about as close — or even closer — than those other contests. But if the Republican Herschel Walker wins, I don’t know how I would explain it. I would have to shrug my shoulders.

Of course, that doesn’t mean he can’t win. Surprises happen. Sometimes, a football team with a great record loses to a team that hasn’t won a single game, even though there’s no good reason to expect it.

And in some ways, a “surprise” in the runoff wouldn’t take anything especially unusual. The polls show a close race, with the incumbent Democrat, Raphael Warnock, leading by about three percentage points. Similarly, Mr. Walker trailed by less than a percentage point in the Nov. 8 election results, and historically, the runoff electorate has sometimes been more conservative. By those measures, it wouldn’t take much at all for Mr. Walker to win.

What to Know About the Georgia Senate Runoff

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Another runoff in Georgia. The contest between Senator Raphael Warnock, a Democrat, and his Republican opponent, Herschel Walker, will be decided in a Dec. 6 runoff. It will be the state’s third Senate runoff in two years. Here’s a look at the race:

What is a runoff election? A runoff is essentially a rematch, held when none of the original candidates meet the criteria for winning. Under Georgia law, candidates must receive a majority of the vote to win an election, but Mr. Warnock and Mr. Walker both failed to clear the 50 percent threshold in the Nov. 8 election.

How long will the process take? Two years ago, Georgia was the site of two Senate runoffs that weren’t decided until January 2021, but a new election law shortened the runoff period from nine weeks to four. This year’s runoff will be on Dec. 6, with early voting that began on Nov. 28, the Monday after Thanksgiving.

Why does Georgia have a runoff law? Georgia’s runoff law was created in the 1960s as a way to preserve white political power in a majority-white state and diminish the influence of Black politicians who could more easily win in a multicandidate race with a plurality of the vote, according to a report by the U.S. Interior Department.

What are the stakes? Even though Democratic victories in Arizona and Nevada ensured that the party would hold the Senate, a victory by Mr. Warnock would give Democrats an important 51st seat ahead of a highly challenging Senate map in 2024.

Where does the race stand now? Both sides are pouring money into ads and courting national allies for visits. But the outcome will probably come down to one big factor: turnout. With the shortened window for runoffs, the parties are investing heavily to mobilize voters during the early voting period.

But it’s hard to come up with good reasons that Mr. Walker would do better in the runoff than he did a month ago, even if on any given Tuesday any candidate can win.

The core issue for Mr. Walker is simple: He is a flawed and unpopular candidate, while Mr. Warnock, by contrast, is fairly popular. And unlike in the November election, the two are the only candidates on the ballot in most of the state. This poses a much greater challenge to Mr. Walker in the runoff election than it did in the general election.

It’s easy to imagine several kinds of voters who backed Mr. Walker in November but who won’t be showing up this time. There’s the Republican who didn’t like Mr. Walker, but who showed up to vote for another Republican — like Brian Kemp in the governor’s race. There’s the Republican who might grudgingly vote for Mr. Walker if the Senate were on the line — as it appeared to be in November — but doesn’t think the stakes are high enough to support someone who 57 percent of voters said does not have strong moral values, according to the AP VoteCast survey.

Worse for Mr. Walker, there’s reason to think these challenges have gotten worse since the Nov. 8 election. Mr. Warnock has outspent him by a wide margin on television. The polls now show Mr. Warnock doing even better than in the pre-election polls in November.

The final turnout data from the November election also raises the possibility that it will be challenging for Mr. Walker to enjoy a more favorable turnout than he did last month. Turnout among previous Republican primary voters outpaced Democratic turnout, in no small part because the Black share of the electorate dipped to its lowest level since 2006. Indeed, Republican candidates won the most votes for U.S. House and the other statewide offices.

More on the Georgia Senate Runoff

  • How Walker Could Win: Despite the steady stream of tough headlines for Herschel Walker, the Republican candidate, he could prevail. Here’s how.
  • Warnock’s Record: An electric car plant outside Savannah could be the central achievement for Senator Raphael Warnock, the Democratic incumbent. But Republicans aren’t giving him credit.
  • Mixed Emotions: The contest might have been a showcase of Black political power in the Deep South. But many Black voters say Mr. Walker’s turbulent campaign has marred the moment.
  • Insulin Prices: The issue is nowhere near as contentious as just about everything else raised in the race. But in a state with a high diabetes rate, it has proved a resonant topic.

In other words, there’s an argument that the electorate last month represented something more like a best-case scenario for Mr. Walker in a high-turnout election. He still didn’t win. Conversely, the early voting estimates raise the possibility that there’s some considerable upside for Mr. Warnock if the electorate looks a bit more like the ones in recent cycles. According to our estimates, the electorate is arguably consistent with one that’s a few points better for Democrats than in November.

Despite a curtailed early voting window, nearly two million Georgia voters cast ballots ahead of today’s election. By our estimates, Mr. Warnock won these voters in November, 59-41, probably giving him a lead of nearly 400,000 votes.

Black voters represented 32 percent of the early vote, up from 29 percent in November.

But it’s hard to read too much into the early voting numbers. The restricted one-week voting period makes it impossible to directly compare the results with those of prior years. And there’s not any hard, factual basis to assert that Mr. Walker can’t overcome his deficit on Election Day.

In fact, early voting and Election Day results are highly correlated — in the opposite direction. The better a party does in early voting, the worse it does on Election Day. But there’s no doubt that these numbers surpass any reasonable set of expectations that Democrats might have had. To the extent it offers any signal, it’s a good one for Mr. Warnock.

The race may be close, but it’s hard to think of a good signal for Mr. Walker.

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