The danger of special elections and run-offs is that they invite analysts to impute some sort of national significance or trend to their outcomes. Sometimes, like in the string of Republican victories that preceded their 1994 revolution, this kind of analysis is warranted. But in the case of yesterday’s Senate run-off in Georgia, it most certainly is not.
Put simply, there is zero national significance (besides the basic fact that Democrats are now guaranteed of falling short of 60 votes in the Senate) to Republican Saxby Chambliss’ lopsided run-off triumph over Jim Martin. It says nothing about Barack Obama, who correctly smelled a loser and stayed far away from Martin’s campaign, and it says nothing about any national comeback strategy for Republicans, who merely won in a deeply red state that was rendered artificially close on November 4 because of astronomical black turnout.
Georgia, which was last won by a Democratic presidential candidate in 1992 and which last elected a Democrat not named Zell Miller to the Senate in 1996, has over the past two decades become one of the most reliably Republican states in the country.
The major factor has been racial polarization. When Bill Clinton carried the state (barely) in ’92, he did it by winning over conservative white Democrats – Reagan Democrats, they were called – who had defected from the Democratic Party in the 1980s. Combined with near-unanimous black support, this was just enough to capture the state. But since the Republican Revolution of ’94, which finally established the G.O.P. as the party of Southern conservatives, those white voters have been increasingly off-limits to Democrats (Clinton, who lost the state to Bob Dole in 1996, included).
This year, nearly 80 percent of white voters in the state sided with John McCain, a finding consistent with most Deep South states (and also consistent with the 2004 results). The reason the state was close on Election Day (Obama lost by five points, compared to John Kerry’s 17-point loss in ’04) was historically high black turnout. Typically, blacks have made up between 20 and 25 percent of Georgia’s electorate and have given about 90 percent of their votes to Democratic candidates. This year, thanks entirely to Obama, they made up around 30 percent of the electorate and gave Obama 98 percent of their votes.
This clearly trickled down to the Senate race. Martin finished with 46 percent on November 4, essentially on par with Obama’s 47 percent.
From that point on, it was obvious that he would lose the run-off to Chambliss, who secured 49 percent on November 4. No matter how much noise Democrats made, they were never going to be able to replicate the enthusiasm in the black community generated by the presence of a black presidential candidate. Black turnout would drop, probably sharply, white voters would vote heavily for Chambliss, and the state would return to its typical post-1994 form.
That is exactly what happened. No exit polls were conducted yesterday, but data from the early voting period showed blacks making up about 23 percent of the electorate. It’s safe to assume this number didn’t change much yesterday. Chambliss’ 14-point win is entirely consistent with Georgia’s last Senate election, in 2004, when Republican Johnny Isakson beat Democrat Denise Majette 58 to 40 percent.
This was going to happen whether Obama campaigned in Georgia or not, or whether Palin showed up on Monday or not. Yes, it’s possible that Palin’s presence spiked enthusiasm among the G.O.P. base and helped very slightly to pad Chambliss’ advantage, just as it’s possible that Obama’s presence might have spiked black interest a little and cut into Chambliss’ lead ever so slightly. Either way, we’re talking about a handful of votes, at best, nothing that would have significantly impacted yesterday’s result.
Going forward, Chambliss’ win offers no compelling comeback strategy for the national G.O.P. The Deep South is the one area of the country that they don’t have to worry about — the one region that actually dug in its heels and stuck by the G.O.P. as the rest of the country became more purple and blue in 2008. This has everything to do with the region’s profound racial polarization; winning a Senate seat because of this merely confirms that nothing has changed since November 4. It doesn’t say anything about how the G.O.P. might win back voters in, say, the Mountain West.
At the same time, this doesn’t mean that Democrats should expect another banner year in the 2010 midterm elections. They made historic gains in 2006 and 2008, and with the presidency and both houses of Congress under their control, slippage is almost inevitable. They may well lose Senate and House races in states outside of the Deep South in two years. But that’s immaterial to what happened yesterday. Chambliss would have crushed Martin whether Obama was the president-elect or not.