Just in case you somehow missed it, incumbent Democratic Senator Rev. Raphael Warnock defeated his Republican opponent, Herschel Walker, in a runoff, by a margin of 2.8% (currently, with ~95% of votes counted)—ensuring Democrats a majority without the need for a tiebreaker, after gaining a seat thanks to John Fetterman’s victory last month, in the Senate.
What happened, and what is notable from his victory?
Beard assessed the results by a region in Georgia to sort of see how the November result, where Warnock led by one percentage point, resulted in a runoff where he ended up winning by almost three percentage points. He broke Georgia down into three broad areas: north Georgia, south Georgia, and the metro Atlanta area:
North Georgia is pretty straightforward. It's connected to Appalachia, it's pretty white, it's pretty conservative. And what we saw there was Walker who had big victories of course in the November election, continued to have big victories in the runoff, slightly bigger margins in a lot of places. So the Republican vote in North Georgia really did come out for him. Turnout was down a little bit more than average. It wasn't a huge difference, but turnout was down a little bit more there than overall. But mostly I would say if this had been replicated in the rest of the state, what happened specifically in North Georgia, it would've been pretty good for Walker. But of course, that's not the biggest part of the state which we'll get to.
Then we have South Georgia, which you can just sort of think of as everything south of the metro Atlanta area. And this area is highly racially polarized. You have a ton of rural counties and the margins there depend almost entirely on the racial makeup of these counties. So you have these extremely white counties that Walker would win by as many as 92 to 8 in one of the most extreme cases, and then you have more diverse or more African American counties that Warnock would do much better in.
But what we saw there was an almost exact replication of the November election result. Turnout was pretty stable across the board across most of South Georgia. There are a few cases where it was slightly up or slightly down county to county, but overall, turnout was pretty much the same as the November election results. And the margins were almost the same in many of these places. So what we saw was pretty much everyone coming out again, everyone voting again.
And so that leaves us with the biggest population center of Georgia, the cause for all of these changes in recent years, which is metro Atlanta. And what we saw in metro Atlanta is that while turnout was down a little bit in sort of the inner and suburban Atlanta, where so much of this core democratic vote is now, the margins managed to shift even a little bit more to Warnock than they were in November. So even though he was doing these crazy great margins of 50-plus points in Fulton County, in DeKalb County where Atlanta is, he managed to do even slightly better in the runoff than he did in the November election. North Georgia is reasonably populated, so they get some good vote numbers out of there, but the real big GOP counties that remain in Georgia are these exurban Atlanta counties like Forsyth and Cherokee.
And what we saw there was that the margin was mostly the same, maybe Warnock did a little bit better in some of these counties, but the margin was mostly the same, but turnout was down. Now none of these turnout results were a huge difference but in a race this close, these margins matter. And turnout was down by more in these counties than they were almost anywhere else. [inaudible 00:05:03] County, which is southwest of Atlanta, had the largest turnout decrease of any county in the state. It was down 17%. This is a Republican Exurban County. Forsyth and Cherokee were down 13%, which was among the lowest in terms of turnout decreases.
And so we can see here is that these are educated places where Kemp did very well in the general where Walker did not do as well. And what you can imagine is a lot of these educated GOP voters decided that they were not going to bother and go cast their votes for Herschel Walker in a race that wasn't going to decide control of the Senate. It wasn't worth it to them to vote for somebody. They probably had an unfavorable opinion of, they were maybe neutral about Warnock, maybe they even liked Warnock and maybe a few of them voted for him. But largely, you can imagine these voters stayed home. And that's really how you get from that 1% margin in November up to this 2.8% margin now in the runoff.
Of the Atlanta metro area, Beard added, “And as we've seen with a lot of states, when a metro area dominates populace and becomes very democratic, a state like Illinois, a state like Virginia nowadays with Northern Virginia, is it becomes very hard for Republicans to compete there and they have to really provide candidates who can appeal to these diverse, moderate suburban areas in order to win elections.”
As recently as 2014, Democrats were anxious about the fact that the base—the Democratic electorate—seemed to turn out less often in midterm years. Now, it seems, so much has changed. As Nir put it, “Things have just completely shifted in a very short amount of time, which speaks both to the huge demographic changes this country's undergoing and, frankly, the impact that the Trumpist GOP has had on our politics.”
The ramifications of this shift extend far beyond just demographics and elections, because it has a significant effect on the kind of candidates that Republicans keep putting forth. Nir recalled a speciifc quote from Greg Bluestein, who writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
He quoted an advisor to state agriculture commissioner Gary Black, who ran a very distillery campaign against Walker in the GOP primary. He lost very badly. And now this advisor said, "Herschel was like a plane crash into a train wreck that rolled into a dumpster fire and an orphanage then an animal shelter. You kind of had to watch it squinting through one eye between your fingers."
Well yeah, that's true. If you were a Republican, if you were Democrat, you were just munching on popcorn. But also think about what it says that Herschel Walker's main primary opponent thinks that the Walker campaign was beyond a dumpster fire, beyond the Titanic, and they couldn't even come close. They couldn't lay a hand on him.
Beard’s take centered on the failing strategy of the Republican Party over the past few years, especially since the first time Donald Trump ran for president:
[The GOP] has been open for this sort of scammer charlatan-esque figure for years and when that's why Trump was able to waltz in and take control of the party and why so many of the candidates that he likes that have had this same sort of style do well, both because of their feel to Trump and because of this charlatan ethos where all they want to do is tell the far right of the party what they want to hear. The far right of the party then feels good because they got told what they want so they vote and then they're all in little media bubble telling each other how great they are. And then when the results come through, there's just like this moment of, "Oh, we lost this election," which is the whole point. And then after a few days they'll go right back to this media bubble. And as long as that's true, nothing is going to change.
And like you said, Democrats, they tend to vote for in primaries are push strong candidates who are, I'm just going to say it, who are smart, well-educated, impressive, people who low-information voters see on TV and are like, "Wow, that's a really impressive person. Maybe I'm going to vote for them even if I'm not crazy about Joe Biden." And so Democrats are going to keep doing that. We're going to nominate strong candidates, and if Republicans are unwilling or unable to, this candidate quality difference is going to continue.
Next, the hosts were joined by Booker, the first-ever alumnus of Daily Kos Elections, who worked for the team for several years on a variety of really important projects. Now, he’s a pollster—and he joined the show to share all about his experience in that line of work, and how he came to be part of Daily Kos Elections, and some of his highlights from working with the team.
Tuesday night wasn't the only good night Democrats have had recently; they also had a lot of good election wins about a month ago. Beard asked Booker for his reaction to the overall 2022 cycle, and his thoughts on the polling: was it better than expected, or worse than expected, in the wake of this good night?
Booker offered learnings from the polling he had worked on from this most recent cycle, specifying that, from a bird’s eye view, he did not see anything that was consistent with a red wave:
Roe was always coming up as something that people were concerned about. Inflation, all that stuff, sure, but Roe was always a big thing going back to June, and it just never looked like Republicans were just in the driver's seat at any point. And I remember thinking, a lot of the public polling was very close and I just remember thinking, undecideds are going to break against us. I was a believer for very long but just late in the season I was just like, okay, this is just how these things go, this is where things break against us, and it didn't. And I guess that that's a lesson in just believing that the data that you have in front of you and not trying to skew it, and just saying, okay, this maybe isn't too good to be true, maybe this is the actual picture. So the polling looked decent, I was very pleasantly surprised to see a very good night for Democrats.
The last few elections have been full of surprises, Booker said, noting that even in 2020 when it seemed Democrats were poised for a really big night—and they did win the presidency—but Republicans ended up making gains in the House, which took many people by surprise.
“So I think that the last few elections have shaken up a lot of people's understandings about what should happen on election nights, and 2022, I guess, was no exception. It just so happened the good guys were the recipients this time,” he pointed out.
Nir thought it was interesting to hear Booker say that the polling he was seeing was incongruent with the idea of a red wave.
“That really reinforces the difference between the good pollsters and the crap pollsters, or as some folks like to say, ‘The narrative-pushing GOP pollsters,’” Nir said. “Because you're a private firm, you're being hired by clients who have a really vested interest in you getting the numbers right. They don't want to push any agenda. In fact, most of their polling data's never going to see the light of day. So they really need to know whether they're up or they're down.”
Nonpartisan pollsters, it seems, for the most part, were also telling the "It's not going to be a red wave" story. Many of them, Nir theorized, were simply crowded out by pollsters on the right who were pushing this “red wave” story. “So it's really compelling to me that the high-quality private polling that the public never got to see was also in line with the better quality nonpartisan public polling that we did get to see,” he added.
Booker also explained that private polls are also more reliable than many might think of them as:
This is one of my, I don't know if I would call it a pet peeve, but this is something I think about when I see people on Twitter. A poll comes out and they automatically say like, "Oh, this is a private poll. Take it with a grain of salt."
Just think about it logically, right? If you are paying for data, why would you just pay for someone to kiss your ass and be like, "Oh, you're doing so amazing." No, if you're paying for this, you want to have the best possible data. You're not cooking the books, you're not trying to create a better electorate, or whatever the case may be.
Private polls ... I'm not going to say they're infallible, I wouldn't say any poll is infallible, but when campaigns do private polls, it's not for the benefit of just juicing donors. I mean, it can, but most of the time, it's for figuring out what messages are going to work or where you stand currently or what you think the electorate's going to look like.
So at times, I think a lot of GOP pollsters were flooding the zone with this one, but overall, when you look at private polling, I think that the skepticism is a little bit overrated, because you don't spend thousands of dollars, and that is what polling costs, thousands of dollars, you don't spend that money from your campaign budget to just hear what you want to hear; you want to hear the real story.
Beard shifted the conversation to ask Booker about how he ended up working with the team at Daily Kos Elections. “I want to take you back in time a little bit from before you started working at Daily Kos Elections,” Beard said. “Now, one of the interesting things about Daily Kos Elections is that most of us sort of stumbled into it one way or another, but you actually applied to work at Daily Kos Elections and then were hired on to do it.”
“So that’s a pretty funny story,” Booker replied, getting into his backstory:
So growing up, my household was ... my mom was pretty political. Like she would always have MSNBC on and she would always be telling me about the elections and stuff like that. I just kind of grew up following it. And as I got older, later in the life, that was a big thing for me, just following politics even into college.
And this may not come as a surprise, you know, Nir knows this, but originally, I thought maybe I was going to do a career in sports, sports media type thing. But in 2016, when Trump got elected, it coincided with me having a class in college at Rutgers — had to give a little Rutgers shout out there — at Rutgers called Political Campaigning. And that really ... I was like, "Wow, this is really fun stuff. I want to do politics for my career."
During that same time period, fall 2016, I had another class about congressional politics that I wrote a paper that needed a case study on ... The paper's topic was gerrymandering and polarization, and it needed a case study. So I found an article from a guy named Stephen Wolf, who wrote for an outlet called Daily Kos, and I used an article that he wrote about North Carolina's political geography as the case study. So obviously cited him. If Stephen's hearing this, I definitely cited him.
Later on … [in] summer 2018, after I graduated college, I was looking for jobs and I was like, "That article I cited in that paper, what was that outlet?" So I type in that article and I find it was Daily Kos and I was like, "Oh, Daily Kos. Okay, okay."
So then I go and find on their page that they are hiring in their elections department for a research coordinator. And I'm reading the job description and I'm like, "This is my job. The universe put this job in front of me for me. This job exists for me." It was perfect. So I applied and interviewed, and this is probably a little anti-climactic, but I just applied, interviewed and got the job, and then I was rolling on from there.
“I couldn't be more glad that the universe arranged to deliver you right to our front door, because the three years you spent with us were just absolutely a joy,” Nir shared. “I would love to hear what you have to say looking back as what you think some of your highlights were from your time at DKE.
Booker started with Daily Kos Elections in August 2018, which was a few months before a great election for Democrats. It was a great time, he said, but it required a rapid adjustment into his new role, “kind of drinking from a fire hose,” learning his first job. It was a lot, but it was an amazing time, he added:
Nir and Beard, you guys know this, I mean, being at Daily Kos Elections is just ... I mean, it's a really special thing if you are an elections nerd. I mean, the group of guys that's there is just ... I mean, it's the best elections team. No disrespect to some of the other folks out here, there's some folks doing good work, but this is the best team in the business.
I feel almost like being here was getting a masters that I got paid to do. You know, I have a master's in elections because I got to learn from some of the best folks in the business. And that is what I take away from my time. I mean, it was just talking and learning and giving my input as I felt more comfortable.
It was just a really special time to grow as an elections analyst, you know, someone that was just always interested in politics and then later on became a person who ... I would never say I'm an expert, but a person who just really adopted the Daily Kos Elections way of looking at things and just being very detail-oriented. Those are the things that I'm going to keep with me for the rest of my career.
Booker also shared interesting things he has learned about all the other components that go into polls, thing that the public doesn’t necessarily see — including the messaging and framing of questions. He noted that pollsters have to really get to the heart of what respondents think are the most important issues:
A lot of times you'll ask respondents, for example, what's the most important issue to you? Or you'll give them or you'll... I wouldn't call this push polling, but this is where you'll have a chance to say, you can read some of a candidate's high points or their bio or some things they believe in or go deeper into a certain issue and just really measure how people are thinking about things. Because things go beyond. And I think that one thing that this election cycle showed is that consistently when you would ask people what's the most important issue in the country? Inflation, inflation, inflation every single time in polls, but that's not always the case when people are just given binary options. If you read to them, these are the stakes of an election or whatever the case is, they might say, "Oh, inflation was what I answered earlier." But when you message to them or whatever, maybe abortion is what they actually think is the most important to their vote or what's the most important reason why they're supporting a candidate.
And also other things like, are you more for X candidate? Is your vote more for X candidate or against Y candidate? It goes so much beyond just what... A lot of polling is to uncover why... If there is a top line, if there is Warnock 48, Walker 46, a lot of polling, a lot of the questions that are involved in polls are, why is that the case? How did you arrive to that conclusion? Like I said, it's about the attitudes and that's a lot of the sort of things that pollsters will try to measure. And you see a little bit of that in public polls too, but I think public polls are more about the horse race, more about things that can be easily measured. I think when you get into private polling and you get into the dialogues that you'll have with campaigns, it's more about what's underneath the surface and how can we make decisions from there.
”Yeah, polling is in a way a lot like an iceberg. For the most part, the public only sees that little 10% at the top,” Nir quipped.
Lastly, the hosts closed out the conversation by asking Booker about focus groups, how they are formed, how they work, and what information they can help candidates and campaigns gleam. Booker cited some of his observations from the Warnock campaign to explain focus groups, which are very complex and for which much work goes into to ensure accuracy and proper representation:
I talked about attitudes before with polling and how polling can measure attitudes. Well, focus groups are almost like a laboratory for messaging the types of things you might want to test in a poll. Is this something that when we look at a greater scale at a population sample that is similar to the electorate that we think is going to exist, these are things that you talk about in a focus group. I'll give you a great example, because this is something I've seen a lot on Twitter. We're all extremely online here. This is something I've seen a lot on Twitter is that people complain that Warnock did not talk in the election enough about Walker's scandals, right? He attacked more so, Walker's not qualified for this instead of saying, "Walker's a deadbeat dad," or whatever the case is.
I can almost guarantee you that the Warnock campaign talked to a lot of voters in the state of Georgia and found for whatever reason, maybe they thought that Walker overcame his mental issues and that was actually a bonus for him. They found that talking to people about how they actually felt when presented with Walker's issues, the best way to talk about it was, this guy's not qualified. I can almost guarantee you that that was the case, because this is where you learn how you're going to approach things when you do it to a larger audience.
And this goes back to polling being a strategizing tool. This is not a thing that candidates use to prop themselves up. They're spending the amount of money that polling costs. And to reiterate, it is not cheap. We see these fundraising numbers nowadays that are eye-popping, but polling is still not just something that you walk into and say, "Oh, we're just going to get some polling." You have to strategize and plan your budget around polling. So I can almost guarantee you that when candidates think about their messaging, a big component of that is focus groups and these things are planned well in advance. It's not a thing you threw together before dinner.
The Downballot comes out every Thursday everywhere you listen to podcasts! As a reminder, you can reach our hosts by email at email@example.com. Please send in any questions you may have for next week's mailbag. You can also reach out via Twitter at @DKElections.