When President Trump travels to Macon, Ga., tonight for a campaign rally, Republicans will be looking for him to keep more than his own electoral fortunes alive.
There is perhaps no other state in which Mr. Trump’s recent slide in the polls has the potential to do as much collateral damage. In addition to staring down what could be their first presidential defeat in Georgia since 1992, Republicans stand to lose not one but two Senate seats if things don’t break their way. In both Senate races, the Trump-aligned Republican candidates have slipped in recent polls.
Those immediate vulnerabilities are colliding with a slow burn of demographic change that has thrown this once firmly Republican state into play. White residents now make up fewer than three in five voters in Georgia, and a wave of migration to the Atlanta area over the past decade has added roughly three quarters of a million people to the state’s major Democratic stronghold.
Which helps explain why this week Joseph R. Biden Jr. was able to nose out ahead of Mr. Trump in a range of polling averages. Surging alongside him are Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock, the Democratic candidates vying for the state’s two open Senate seats.
“One of the things I’m looking at is what we call the 30-30 rule,” said Trey Hood, a political scientist at the University of Georgia who directs its Survey Research Center. “Can a Democratic candidate get 30 percent of the white vote statewide, and do African-Americans constitute 30 percent of the electorate over all? If you can get to those levels as a Democrat, you’ve got a pretty good shot at winning.”
In 2016, Hillary Clinton came within five points of Mr. Trump in Georgia while winning only 21 percent of white voters, according to exit polls. But polling suggests Mr. Biden is likely to land closer to 30 percent among white voters.
The story doesn’t just play out along racial lines. Georgia’s electorate is growing younger, with 50 percent of its voting-eligible population now under the age of 45, according to the Census Bureau — ahead of the national average. And across racial lines, those younger voters trend more liberal, a fact that threatens to further shake up the longstanding electoral calculus.
In a recent University of Georgia/Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll, 64 percent of voters under 30 supported Mr. Biden, not far off from his numbers nationally.
Keep up with Election 2020
And of the more than 300,000 new voters who registered in Georgia last year, a large majority were either nonwhite or below age 30.
The Senate races
Since the presidential debate on Sept. 29, high-quality polls have shown a range of outcomes in Georgia — from a slight Trump edge last week in the University of Georgia/Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll to a clear, seven-point Biden lead in a Quinnipiac University survey released on Wednesday. But over all, they have found Mr. Trump failing to match the strength of his 2016 support, particularly among white college graduates and older voters.
The effects are spilling over into the state’s two Senate races. In one, Mr. Ossoff, who narrowly lost a 2017 special election for a House seat in the Atlanta suburbs, is challenging Senator David Perdue. Mr. Ossoff led by six points in the Quinnipiac survey, although other recent polls, including the University of Georgia survey, have shown Mr. Perdue holding a sizable lead.
In the other, a wide-open race to fill the seat vacated by former Senator Johnny Isakson, it is a Democrat, Dr. Warnock, who consistently garners the most support in polls, although he is facing two powerful Republican candidates whose combined share generally exceeds his. If no candidate wins 50 percent of the vote in either Senate election — as appears particularly likely in the race for Mr. Isakson’s old seat — a runoff would be held in early January.
Like Mr. Perdue, both of the leading Republicans in the special election — Senator Kelly Loeffler, who was appointed to fill Mr. Isakson’s seat on an interim basis, and Representative Doug Collins — have hitched themselves firmly to Mr. Trump’s coattails, a gambit that has begun to look perilous as his favorability rating has dipped in a range of Georgia polls.
It’s possible Dr. Warnock could suffer the same fate that Mr. Ossoff did in the Sixth District election three years ago — nearly winning it outright, before suffering a narrow loss to a Republican in the runoff.
Democrats’ hopes were dashed again in 2018, when Stacey Abrams came within a hair’s breadth of winning the governor’s race. Many Democrats, including Ms. Abrams, said it could have gone the other way if the state’s Republican leadership had not removed hundreds of thousands of voters from the rolls in 2017, or if voting machines hadn’t malfunctioned in some key Democratic areas.
Partly because of those near misses, many Democrats have not been holding their breath for a statewide win this year.
But the story is still being written. The Sixth District did ultimately flip blue in 2018, sending Lucy McBath to Congress as the district’s first Democratic representative since the 1970s. That area’s voters also swung decisively for Ms. Abrams in the governor’s race.
Next month, if national trends play out across the rest of Georgia, Mr. Biden could be in a position to carry Democrats’ 2018 gains with suburban voters even further.
What polls can’t tell you
When polls are this tight, they become diminishingly useful as tea leaves. Close elections often come down to a simple matter of turnout and ballot access — which groups are most motivated to vote, and which are most able to do so easily.
The question of vote suppression has a particular relevance in Georgia, where access to the ballot has been a point of partisan contention for years.
The United States Commission on Civil Rights has identified five state-level policies that can serve to suppress votership, and only one state has put into effect every one of them: Georgia.
Some polling forecasters, including FiveThirtyEight, have begun to factor in questions of ballot access when rendering their formulas, using resources like the Cost of Voting Index to reflect the potentially negative impact on Democratic turnout that voting restrictions tend to have. But it is hard for pollsters or forecasters to dial into the specifics of vote suppression.
In the past 10 years, Atlanta was the fourth-fastest-growing metropolitan region in the country, but polling places have not been added to keep up with the growth in population; in many places, poll sites have in fact been closed or become overrun when voting machines malfunctioned. As a result, hourslong lines became a symbol of the state’s political dysfunction in the 2018 election.
In the Georgia primary in June, with the coronavirus causing a surge in poll closures, Atlanta accounted for the vast majority — 83 percent — of all polling places statewide that were forced to stay open late because of long lines, according to an expert study. This led to lower turnout in these areas, the study found, as some voters simply gave up waiting.
Statewide, hourlong wait times were 10 times as likely to occur in heavily Black areas compared to heavily white ones, according to the study.
There’s also a possibility that many voters who think they are registered will find that their names have been purged from the rolls. The 2017 purge included over 100,000 people who would have otherwise still been eligible to vote, according to one analysis.
As an election draws near, pollsters move toward using what is known as a “likely voter” model to predict who will show up on Election Day, often depending on respondents to report their own likelihood to vote, and on their past voting behavior. But when voters who fully intended to cast a ballot find themselves unable to do so, this introduces an element of entropy not easily detected in polls.
“In a place like Georgia, there are going to be long lines when the polls close, and many of those people are going to go home,” said Patrick Murray, the director of polling at Monmouth University, who has polled Georgia twice this year.
He said that like most other pollsters he had not altered his voter model to adjust for this, but he sees it as a potentially salient issue — particularly with the added complications of the pandemic. “I’m very worried about this, and I even saw some signs of that in the primary,” he said, referring to long lines driving down turnout in certain areas. “This is a moving target on something that we’ve never dealt with before.”