Cham­b­liss had his­tory on his side

The Covington News - - Opinion - Tom Craw­ford Colum­nist

There were many explanations be­ing floated for Saxby Cham­b­liss’ smash­ing suc­cess in the Dec. 2 runoff elec­tion for the U.S. Se­nate.

He raised a lot of money. Even with a late surge of funds to Jim Martin from Demo­cratic party leaders in the Wash­ing­ton, D.C. area, Cham­b­liss still had nearly three times as much money for his re­elec­tion cam­paign.

He re­al­ized af­ter the close call in the gen­eral elec­tion that he needed a ground game and beefed up his get-out­the-vote op­er­a­tions for the runoff.

Cham­b­liss and a host of in­de­pen­dent GOP com­mit­tees ran wave af­ter wave of TV at­tack ads that ham­mered Martin dur­ing the runoff.

He uti­lized the starpower of celebrity Repub­li­cans like Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee John McCain, who cam­paigned for Cham­b­liss and en­er­gized Repub­li­cans who weren’t en­thused about the se­na­tor’s record and voted for a Lib­er­tar­ian can­di­date in the gen­eral elec­tion.

He also cap­i­tal­ized on the suc­cess of Demo­cratic candidates in Se­nate races in other states. Cham­b­liss ar­gued that elect­ing Martin would en­able na­tional Democrats to get dan­ger­ously close to a fil­i­buster-proof ma­jor­ity of 60 seats in the U.S. Se­nate. The vot­ers re­sponded well to this “fire­wall” ar­gu­ment.

All of those fac­tors played a part in help­ing Cham­b­liss win an­other six-year term, but the sim­plest ex­pla­na­tion for his runoff victory can be summed up in one word: his­tory.

In all of Ge­or­gia’s gen­eral elec­tion runoffs over the past two decades, his­tory shows that Repub­li­can vot­ers do a bet­ter job of com­ing back to the polls than do Democrats. That pat­tern held true in this elec­tion as Cham­b­liss and Lauren “Bubba” McDon­ald, a GOP can­di­date for the Pub­lic Ser­vice Com­mis­sion can­di­date; both en­joyed land­slide runoff vic­to­ries over their Demo­cratic op­po­nents.

There are strong his­tor­i­cal par­al­lels be­tween 2008, when Cham­b­liss held off Martin, and 1992, when Repub­li­can Paul Coverdell came back in the runoff to top­ple Demo­cratic Sen. Wy­che Fowler.

Both elec­tions were held in the same year that a Demo­crat was elected pres­i­dent (Bill Clin­ton in 1992, Barack Obama in 2008). In both elec­tions, the voter turnout for the runoff amounted to about 56 per­cent of the num­ber who voted in the gen­eral elec­tion.

In both elec­tions, the pres­i­dent-elect tried to help the Demo­cratic can­di­date. Clin­ton came to Ge­or­gia to cam­paign per­son­ally for Fowler. While Obama did not travel to Ge­or­gia, he did ra­dio com­mer­cials and robo-calls for Martin, and also dis­patched staffers from his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign to help with get-out-the-vote ef­forts.

In both elec­tions, Repub­li­can vot­ers were anx­ious to push back against the elec­tion of a pop­u­lar Demo­crat for pres­i­dent and turned out in heavy num­bers for the runoff.

Coverdell trailed Fowler by 35,000 votes in the gen­eral elec­tion, but he won the runoff by more than 16,000 votes, a turn­around of 51,371 votes. Cham­b­liss, who fin­ished just be­low 50 per­cent in the gen­eral elec­tion, in­creased his ad­van­tage over Martin from 109,671 votes to more than 318,000 votes, a huge im­prove­ment.

Repub­li­cans had the added in­cen­tive of push­ing back against a pres­i­dent-elect who was not only a Demo­crat but the coun­try’s first African-Amer­i­can pres­i­dent as well.

“The Ge­or­gia elec­torate is eas­ily the most racially po­lar- ized of any state we polled reg­u­larly dur­ing the 2008 elec­tion cy­cle,” said Tom Jensen of Pub­lic Pol­icy Polling, one of sev­eral firms whose runoff polls un­der­es­ti­mated the turnout by white Repub­li­cans.

You could pre­dict the out­come of the runoff elec­tion by com­par­ing the early vot­ing statis­tics.

In the gen­eral elec­tion, nearly 35 per­cent of the early bal­lots were cast by black vot­ers who were ob­vi­ously en­thused by the prospects of vot­ing for Obama. That heavy turnout helped Obama run a closer-than-ex­pected race against McCain (he lost by only 5 per­cent­age points) and en­abled Martin to fin­ish within 3 points of Cham­b­liss.

The early vot­ing for the runoff elec­tion was an­other story en­tirely. The per­cent­age of black vot­ers dropped to less than 23 per­cent. The pro­por­tion of white male vot­ers, who are more likely to vote Repub­li­can than any other group, in­creased from less than 30 per­cent to nearly 36 per­cent of the early vote. Those were all signs that Cham­b­liss was headed for a big victory.

In the end, Repub­li­can vot­ers came back to the polls and Democrats didn’t. With that bit of his­tory on his side, it would have been hard for Cham­b­liss to lose.

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