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Crawford: Hard to call winner in Senate race

POSTED: August 8, 2008 5:01 a.m.

There's only one statewide race on the Aug. 5 runoff election ballot, the Democratic battle for the Senate between Vernon Jones and Jim Martin. But if you asked me to predict the winner of this one, I'd have to confess I have no clue.

The reason is the dismal record of Georgia voters in casting ballots in our system of midsummer primary elections.

The experts predicted there would be a 30 percent turnout for the July 15 primary round of balloting, but the actual participation was much lower, somewhere around 18 percent.

For a runoff election in early August, when people are focusing more on vacations or getting the kids ready for school, the turnout could drop to as low as 5 or 6 percent in some areas. You can't really project how many people might prefer Jones, the DeKalb County CEO, over Martin, the former legislator, when you don't know how many will vote.

There are general trends in state politics that could favor either candidate.

Jones finished first on July 15 with 40 percent of the vote to 34 percent for Martin in a five-person race. In about two-thirds of past elections, the frontrunner in a primary also won the runoff.

But there have been instances where supporters of the other candidates gang up on the primary election frontrunner and defeat him in the runoff. We could be seeing that dynamic here, where third-place finisher Dale Cardwell and fourth-place finisher Rand Knight have both endorsed Martin (Josh Lanier, who finished fifth, remained neutral).

Jones is the only African-American candidate in this race and would seem to benefit from the fact that more than half of the Democratic primary voters were black. But if you dig deeper into the data, there are some interesting things to consider.

It was estimated that up to 55 percent of the Democratic primary voters were black, but Jones only received 40 percent of the total vote. This means that roughly 15 percent of the voters were blacks who opted not for Jones but for one of the four white candidates.

Jones also did not do all that well in his home county of DeKalb or in Clayton County, two metro Atlanta areas with heavy concentrations of black voters. Jones only got 47 percent of the vote in Clayton and an even smaller 42 percent share in DeKalb, the county where people are most familiar with his style of politics.

It is also a well-established trend that black voters in Georgia are less likely to return for a runoff election than are white voters.

Jones had some of his most impressive results in the "black belt" counties where there are large numbers of rural, African-American residents, drawing as much as 65 percent of the total vote in Hancock, Terrell, Clay, Randolph, Greene, Lee, Macon, McDuffie, Mitchell, Putnam, Talbot and Peach counties.

Some of those rural counties won't have any local elections to decide in the runoff, however, which means there is less of a reason for voters there to come back.

On the other hand, Jones also ran strongly in urban areas south of Atlanta such as Columbus, Macon, Albany and Savannah. Those more populous counties might give him an edge over Martin in the runoff.
Martin has benefited from the financial support he received from national Democratic Party leaders in Washington, D.C., who think he would be a stronger candidate than Jones in the general election. That money enabled Martin to run more TV spots during the primary, a contributing factor in his second-place finish.

The final thing to consider is the personal style of the two candidates.

Although Jones has a more controversial background than Martin, he has also been the more aggressive and energetic candidate. Martin has run a listless campaign where he has declined to make an issue, for the most part, of Jones' personal history. He has been, in short, an exceedingly dull candidate, which might be all the advantage that Jones needs for victory.

Of course, it may not matter which candidate wins next week. Republican incumbent Saxby Chambliss has more than $4 million available to spend on the general election, which is more money than all the Democratic candidates combined have raised.

That trend alone could make the results of the Democratic runoff irrelevant.

Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact's Georgia Report, an Internet news service at www.gareport.com that covers government and politics in Georgia.



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