Republicans and Democrats have spent $14 million on a nonstop ad blitz to sway Georgia’s special election. But the outcome of Tuesday’s vote may come down to a more personal touch.
The leading contenders in the 18-candidate race have unleashed a flood of volunteers and paid staffers to target voters in the final days of the election, and they’re making last-ditch phone calls, waving signs at busy street corners and going door-by-door in search of support.
And though the advertising blitz can help shape the perception of the top candidates, the sophisticated ground game from each party may end up determining whether Democrat Jon Ossoff will pull off an upset victory to fill the suburban Atlanta seat, or square off against a Republican in June.
Campaigns mine the enormous amount of information they collect, including voting history and social media data, to craft messages that can be personalized to sway votes.They get these details by digging through reams of data on voting rolls to ferret out clues, such as whether voters chose a Democratic or Republican ballot in a primary — and how regularly they cast ballots in those elections.
On-the-ground canvassers use the information to give an extra push, trying to lock up verbal commitments and ensure supporters have rides to the polls.
Much is at stake. Republicans have held the district for decades and a loss on Tuesday would be a rebuke to Donald Trump. With his “Make Trump Furious” message, Ossoff has energized supporters and raised an unprecedented cash haul, though he still faces long odds of flipping the seat.
‘This is personal’
The messaging can get eerily personal. Some Democrats in the district, which stretches from east Cobb to north DeKalb, got mailers encouraging them to prod their spouses to vote. Others were frustrated by letters from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee knocking their past voting record as merely “average.”
“Shaming is no way to motivate and may actually be doing more harm than good in getting out the Democratic vote,” said Liz Goldsmith, a Roswell Democrat who received one of the mailers.
In the last few days, hundreds of residents received hand-written postcards from as far as Wyoming from Democrats urging them to rally behind Ossoff, a 30-year-old former congressional aide who now runs an investigative filmmaking company.
“Because I live in D.C. I don’t get to elect a person to Congress like you,” read one postcard to a voter from “Gina A” in Washington. “This is your election to win and send a strong message to Trump.”
On Saturday alone, campaigns and staffers for outside groups knocked on thousands of doors and made tens of thousands of phone calls. At a Republican get-out-the-vote rally in Marietta, Republicans tried to unite behind a “Stop Ossoff” movement.
“This is personal,” said Attorney General Chris Carr, who lives in Dunwoody. “We have great candidates. But whoever you support is better than the other side. They are trying to embarrass us, but let’s show them this district is Republican red.”
On the other side of the district, at a Republican breakfast in DeKalb, state Sen. Fran Millar criticized Democrats who think it’s a “done deal that this kid’s going to become the Congressman.” The district’s demographics and voting history, he said, are stacked firmly against them.
“I’ll be very blunt: These lines were not drawn to get Hank Johnson’s protégé to be my representative,” said Millar, a Dunwoody Republican.
‘Making a difference’
Ossoff’s campaign hopes to reverse the tide with the help of an $8.3 million fundraising haul, much of it from out-of-state donors energized by the Democrat’s promise to “stand up to Donald Trump.”
That money has helped marshal thousands of volunteers and hire dozens more campaign staffers. And Democratic groups have reinforced his campaign by pouring supporting get-out-the-vote machinery while not overtly endorsing his campaign.
“I’ve not seen energy like this in the 15 years I’ve been working in politics,” said Rebecca DeHart, executive director of the Democratic Party of Georgia, which has contacted tens of thousands of voters. “People all over the state – and people outside the state – are trying to get involved. Everyone is looking at the race and sees the opportunity.”
Among the first-time volunteers is Keith Sanders, a neurologist who joined a corps of sign-waving Ossoff supporters on a street corner in Brookhaven. Frustrated with Trump, he said he simply wanted to send a message to the White House.
“I feel like I’m helping, that I’m making a difference,” Sanders said as he waved a sign for Ossoff. “I respect Jon and I’m unhappy with President Trump. And this is an opportunity to flip the Sixth. It just makes sense.”
All 18 candidates will share the same ballot, and if no contender gets a majority of the vote a June 20 runoff awaits the top two finishers. The latest round of polls show Ossoff hovering in the 40s, not quite in striking distance of the majority he needs but well ahead of Karen Handel, the closest Republican contender.
Republicans see a replay of the 2014 and 2016 votes in the making. Georgia GOP chair John Padgett compared the surge of attention around Ossoff’s campaign to the failed 2014 bids of “little blue-headed folks” — Jason Carter and Michelle Nunn, who ran unsuccessfully for governor and an open U.S. Senate seat.
“What got them beat is you. You got out and outworked them,” he told volunteers. “And you’ll do it again.”
Ossoff has a similar message for his backers. He tells them that internal polling and early voting numbers show he has an opening to “shock the world” and win the race outright.
“The early voting numbers and our internal polling continue to demonstrate that this is winnable on Tuesday,” he said at a recent campaign stop, “but it’s only winnable if we sprint through the finish line with more intensity, more passion and less sleep than any other campaign out there.”