Monday, December 01, 2008

Back to the Future in Georgia: Run-off on Tuesday!

Friend of the blog may have noticed that I have been significantly lax of late in posting to ABAUM'S WORLD. Alas, this dearth of productivity arises in direct response to my quickly approaching first semester finals, which begin on December 10th. Knowing this, you might be wondering why I'm taking the time to write on here at all? The answer is that, as you may have gathered, I can't get away from politics, and I like nothing more than making a good prediction.

Some significant things will be happening on the political front this week. On Monday, Hillary Clinton will be officially announced as the President-Elect's Secretary of State. Amidst the brouhaha, it is easy to neglect the fact that on Tuesday, Georgia voters will go to the polls in a runoff race between Republican incumbent Saxby Chambliss and Democratic opponent George Martin. To recap, this way a three way race on November 4th, and the Libertarian candidate drew just enough votes to keep either candidate from gaining the 50% margin required for victory by Georgia law. Subsequently, the race went to a run-off between the two top vote getters, and Chambliss, who edged on Martin by just a few points in the first election, seems poised to pull off a squeaker win in this rapidly changing Southern state.

The Georgia runoff has been fascinating to watch, because it has kind of telescoped a lot of the major things going on in both parties in a very narrow way. The Democratic party currently holds 58 seats in the Senate. If Al Franken prevails in the recount against Norm Coleman in Minnesota (another fascinating case whose scope is beyond the focus of this comment), they'll have 59. George Martin is therefore the crucial difference between a filibuster-proof 60 seat super-majority in the Senate, and a chamber where Republicans still have, at least in the ex ante position, some strategic room for maneuvering.

Nate Silver at has provided excellent analysis of many of the issues I'm discussing here, so for a more nuanced treatment I suggest browsing many of the posts on his site since the election. One point he compellingly made early on is that run-off elections are a strange creature; they are wildly unpredictable, and has historically defied accurate polling. This is largely due to the fact that runoffs occur at a time when people are not used to voting, and so victory is often awarded to the candidate that can more effectively turn out its share of the electorate. Since a significantly smaller proportion of the electorate votes in run-offs, candidates increase their marginal utility for every voter they are able to get out to the polls.

Its no small wonder then, that with so much on the line, the Republican party has brought out "the big leagues." In the last month, the entire pantheon of big-name Republican pols have trekked down to Georgia in the hopes of exciting the base and pumping them out to the polls, with the boogeyman of a Democratic super Senate majority their fear tactic of choice. John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, and Newt Gingrich have all visited the state for Chambliss, and Sarah Palin will be stumping four times for the Republican on Runoff Eve. Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, Al Gore and Bill Clinton have come down for Martin. Notice anyone missing from this illustrious list? Of course, it's Democratic President-elect Barack Obama.

Though he has recorded television spots and radio ads for Martin, Obama has declined requests from the Martin campaign to make a personal appearance in the state on Martin's behalf, despite the fact that a massive Obama-Martin rally could make a sizable impact on the Democratic hopeful's get out the vote efforts. Speculation is rampant about why Barack has refused to show up. Many have argued, and I tend to agree, that he is saving his political capital, eschewing large, public acts of partisanship at a time when he has become the de facto President of the country. I also think he is concerned about becoming distracted from his central task of carefully building his administration and transition team, and risk alienating Republicans and Independents who are showing him enormous goodwill right now (a recent poll showed 75% of Americans think Obama is going to be a good president - numbers he doesn't want to endanger with partisan politicking so close to the inauguration).

However, just because Obama isn't in the state himself doesn't mean his political machine isn't hard at work. Martin has 25 field offices in the state, equal in number to Chambliss', and since the election, they have been ably staffed by former Obama field organizers and staff from all across the country. These hardened veterans of the 2008 election have descended on Georgia en masse for the final battle of this election cycle, and they are using every tool they can muster to try and get out the vote for Martin. The entire model is a replica of what Obama used to get himself elected. The crucial question is, can the same principles and organizing tools that got Obama to the White House propel Martin to an upset win over Chambliss?

The odds are in Chambliss' favor: state polls consistently give him around a three point lead, which is about what he beat Martin by in the November election. If Chambliss wins, Republicans will claim a moral victory, and give a little hope to their 2010 chances of regaining some of their competitive advantage in Congress. If Martin wins, however, it will be in no small part due to the efforts of Obama's organization. What makes this elections so interesting, and worthy of this extended comment, is that in a way, it is an indicator of what a post-Obama Democratic field organization might look like, and a small glimpse of an answer to the question - can Democrats win without him? Obviously, there are many other factors at play here (including the strengths and weaknesses of the respective candidates themselves). Nonetheless, this run-off will give us all a little insight into the power of Obama's political organization at work after his election. For that reason, you should play close attention to what happens in Georgia on Tuesday.

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