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Crawford: Georgia voters may surprise us all in election

POSTED: October 16, 2008 5:00 a.m.

On the morning of Sept. 15, John McCain probably felt like he was on top of the world.

The Arizona senator's position in the race for president had improved steadily in the two weeks since he selected Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his vice president. On that fateful Monday morning, McCain was leading Barack Obama by a point or two in almost every major poll. Democrats were starting to panic that the election was going down the tubes.

How quickly things can change. Sept. 15 was the day when news broke that Wall Street was imploding and threatening to take the American economy with it. In quick succession, Merrill Lynch would be bought out, Lehman Brothers would go bankrupt, and AIG would be taken over by the federal government. Treasury officials would ask for $700 billion to bail out institutions endangered by all the subprime mortgage loans.

In the middle of this meltdown, McCain made the mistake of going before the TV cameras and saying that "the fundamentals of our economy are strong." It was a statement contradicted by every news story on TV and it convinced some voters that McCain was out of touch on one of the biggest issues facing this country.

McCain's poll numbers started to go downhill on that Black Monday and they have been dropping ever since. The financial crisis has completely scrambled the political picture.

The financial storm also seems to have had an impact at the state level, as we have seen in Georgia.

Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss has been considered one of the safest incumbent senators up for reelection this year. One independent poll conducted in Georgia just before the Wall Street meltdown showed Chambliss with a 53-36 percent lead over his Democratic challenger, Jim Martin.

When that same independent firm conducted another poll two weeks later, Chambliss' lead over Martin had shrunk to two percentage points: 46-44. An internal poll conducted for Martin's campaign showed there was a three-point gap between the two candidates.

McCain's numbers have been similarly affected in Georgia, a conservative state that normally would have been safely in the Republican column for a presidential election.

Where McCain had been running as much as 18 points ahead of Obama in Georgia before the markets tanked, a survey conducted last week showed the GOP nominee was up by only 50-44 percent. McCain's once-enormous lead had been cut by two-thirds.

Republicans in other states have been reporting similar trends, leading some party strategists to worry that the financial crisis is going to hurt candidates up and down the ticket.

As a leading Republican consultant told the Washington Post: "The crisis has affected the entire ticket. The worse the state's economy, the greater the impact."

That could be worrisome news for Chambliss and McCain, because the economic picture in Georgia is far from positive. Gov. Sonny Perdue is trying to grapple with a budget deficit estimated at more than $2 billion, the state's unemployment rate is the highest it's been in more than 16 years, and we also have some of the highest rates of mortgage fraud and default.

Add to that the fact that African-Americans, Latinos and other groups who tend to vote strongly for Democrats have been registering to vote in huge numbers in Georgia this year. In the state's early voting, which is proceeding at a record-breaking pace, nearly 40 percent of those casting ballots have been black.

All of these indicators suggest that Georgia's voters may have some surprises in store for us when all the votes are tabulated on Nov. 4. There are four or five legislative campaigns involving Republican incumbents in competitive districts that just might tip to the Democratic challengers (although that won't threaten Republican control of the Legislature). There is a race for the Public Service Commission where Jim Powell may upset Republican Lauren McDonald and add a Democratic member to that regulatory agency.

I don't see that trend threatening Republican congressmen like Paul Broun, John Linder or Nathan Deal. Their districts are too conservative to be overturned by this Democratic wave.

I suspect that McCain and Chambliss will also pull through and win a majority of Georgia's votes on election day. But I can understand why they might be feeling a little nervous right now.

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



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