A new poll from the University of Georgia finds incumbents Gov. Brian Kemp and Sen. Raphael Warnock have an advantage over their opponents heading into the final days before early voting, with runoffs possible in both races.

This story also appeared in Georgia Public Broadcasting

The poll, which surveyed 1,030 registered Georgians who said they were likely to vote this November, finds Kemp supported by 51% of those surveyed and Warnock, 46%. Republicans also garnered more support than Democrats in the lieutenant governor, secretary of state and attorney general races.

The margin of error is 3.1%, the poll was conducted Sept. 25 through Oct. 4 and consisted of 90% cell phone numbers and 10% landline numbers. “Likely voters” means registered voters who previously voted in at least one of the last two general elections, the 2021 U.S. Senate runoff or the 2022 primary and said they were definitely or probably going to vote this November.

GPB News is among several newsrooms that are part of the Georgia News Collaborative, which commissioned this poll from UGA to measure support for top statewide races as well as a host of issues that affect the state, including voting rights, abortion and the economy.

While the topline numbers of the poll show a noticeable gap in the governor’s race and tight race for U.S. Senate, a closer analysis of the crosstabs and polling sample provides further insight into where these top candidates stand just weeks before the election.

Poll numbers only represent a small slice of the electorate

It’s important to remember that polls are a snapshot in time of a slice of the electorate and are not an ironclad dictation of what will happen once the polls close.

“The first thing that pollsters love as a saying, is to say that it’s a snapshot, it’s not a prediction,” Ariel Edwards-Levy, polling and election analytics editor at CNN said in a recent Battleground: Ballot Box podcast episode on polling. “What you’re doing is you’re talking to a random sample of a certain number of voters across the state, and that group of people who you talk to hopefully will represent the larger electorate. And what it will tell you is, if the election were today, what those people think they would vote for, what their vote choice would be.”

According to the results released by UGA, 51% of these likely voters surveyed say they would support Brian Kemp if the election were held today and 41% would vote for Stacey Abrams, with about 6% undecided. While the topline number shows a 10-point gap between the candidates, it does not necessarily mean a runoff is unlikely.

Kemp enjoys strong support from Republicans and demographics that usually support the party, such as white voters, older voters and higher-income Georgians.  

The biggest factors causing the lower support for Abrams in this poll are a significant portion of undecided voters among women and Black Georgians and an atypically low share of younger voters, three of her strongest constituencies in 2018.

According to the AP VoteCast exit poll survey of that 2018 race, Abrams won 94% of the Black vote, 56% of the female vote and 63% of voters between 18 and 29 years old.

The crosstabs of this October poll find 10% of the Black likely voters polled said they were undecided about their choice, and 81% of them expressed support for Stacey Abrams.

“I would still look for that number to consolidate around Abrams [to] at least 90%,” said Trey Hood III, professor of political science and director of the School of Public and International Affairs Survey Research Center at the University of Georgia, who conducted the poll.

Abrams narrowly garnered more support from women surveyed in this poll, 47-45 with 7% undecided, and only 32% of the 18-29 demographic said they backed Abrams, an anomalous result from previous elections and other polls.

Numbers from an individual poll do not necessarily represent upward or downward trends. 

“You can’t put a tremendous amount of credence in a single poll and a single number that’s been sliced and diced like this,” Hood said of the 18-29 age group results. “So I’d probably need to see more evidence that that’s really a pattern as opposed to maybe just an artifact of this particular poll.”

That advice also applies to other statewide races polled where there are high numbers of undecided voters, like lieutenant governor (14%), secretary of state (12%) and attorney general (10%). There is no option to vote “undecided,” so candidates that are in the high 30s or low 40s will likely be higher once the polls close.

Two other factors should be considered when reading the latest poll results: party identification and who shows up to vote.

Georgia has seen more than a million new voters added since the last governor’s race, many of them younger, more diverse and less likely to be regular voters. If those people vote (and if likely voters or undecideds ultimately don’t), the results could be different than what polls may capture.

Additionally, this poll does not weight results by party identification, and a slight majority (50.3%) of respondents self-identified as Republican, compared to Democrats (42.5%) and a relatively small number of independents (7.2%). Georgia does not register voters by party, but AP VoteCast survey of the 2018 midterms had a split of about 38% Republican, 34% Democrat and 28% independent voters.

What poll numbers reveal about likely voters

Voters who have been polled this year support incumbents at higher rates than their challengers — Kemp and Warnock especially — and on the whole, polls suggest yet another round of close results in a politically divided state.

An array of partisan and nonpartisan polling firms have Kemp ahead of Abrams, but almost always somewhere around 50% and within the margin of error of potentially heading to a runoff. 

Georgia law requires candidates to get at least 50% of the vote, otherwise the top two head to a runoff (now four weeks after the general election, thanks to Senate Bill 202, the 98-page voting bill passed in 2021) when there are more than two candidates.

Speaking of runoffs, one other takeaway from this poll in context of other recent, well-established polls could be that the governor’s race is more likely to head to a Dec. 6 runoff than the U.S. Senate race.

In the Senate race, the UGA poll has incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock at 46% with the likely voters surveyed, Republican Herschel Walker at 43%, Libertarian Chase Oliver at a stout 4% and 6% of those surveyed undecided. That tracks with recent surveys that have found Warnock earning anywhere from 47-52%, often within the margin of error of avoiding a runoff.

News headlines can affect poll numbers, and it’s important to note that polling by UGA for this survey was more than 90% completed before the latest revelations in the Senate race that saw allegations of Walker encouraging an ex-girlfriend to have an abortion (and paying for it) followed by claims from his son that Walker threatened to kill them multiple times.

It’s difficult to predict the impact of the latest news about Walker, but the UGA poll shows he fared worse than Kemp among every single demographic group, including a noticeable lack of support from Black voters, independents and women — all before the most recent scandal.

But if this poll has Warnock at 46% and Kemp at 51%, why is it more likely that the governor’s race goes to a runoff? It all comes down to turnout.

Looking at the crosstabs, Kemp and Warnock both receive similar portions of support from their own party and the opposite party, but Warnock has much higher support among independents. That’s similar to a September Quinnipiac poll that found that 52% of voters polled backed Warnock, and 50% supported Kemp.

Looking at the overall partisan composition of the poll along with the results, Kemp’s support is slightly outperforming the share of people that identified as Republican. Warnock’s support is even higher than the share of people that identified as Democrats, so if the electorate is more closely balanced — or is not 50% Republican, Warnock could have a stronger lead than Kemp and potentially clear the threshold to avoid a runoff.

In the lieutenant governor race, Republican Burt Jones and Democrat Charlie Bailey are within the margin of error and also face a potential runoff. Voters surveyed — especially independents — are less decided about this race and other down-ballot contests than the marquee Senate and governor races.

Libertarian candidates are also seeing more support from Georgians than previous elections, potentially forcing many top races into runoffs. They get most of their support from self-described independent voters, but also peel off more support from Republican candidates than Democrats.

One outlier for Republicans is Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who enjoys a higher share of independent and Democratic voters polled supporting his campaign, but also a higher share of Republican voters choosing a Libertarian or remaining undecided. 

Raffensperger earned praise from across the political spectrum for refusing to alter the 2020 election results under immense pressure from former President Donald Trump, and defeated a Trump-backed primary challenger this spring. But a segment of the Republican base has been turned off by Raffensperger, whom they feel betrayed them and Trump and that he oversees an election system that did not produce a fair result in 2020, despite evidence it did.

Georgians on the issues

Beyond the horse race coverage of top offices, our poll asked Georgia likely voters their sentiments on a variety of issues facing the state and country — which two-thirds of those surveyed said is heading down the wrong track.

Some findings are not as surprising: Democrats largely approve of the job President Joe Biden is doing while Republicans strongly disapprove, and vice versa for Kemp. But other questions show Georgians’ views and their elected officials can differ.

Amidst the state’s record-setting $6 billion budget surplus, legislative leaders have discussed rebates or lowering taxes as part of the state’s history of fiscal conservatism. But a majority of voters — including 36% of Republicans polled — say Georgia should increase its spending instead of cutting taxes.

Sixty percent of those polled support allowing casino gambling and 46% back online sports betting in Georgia as efforts to legalize those forms of revenue have stalled in the legislature but reemerged as a campaign platform from Abrams.

The past several years of Georgia politics have seen a number of high-profile bills become law in the GOP-led legislature that has led to protests from Democrats, including a sweeping election law, controversial abortion legislation and loosening of firearms restrictions.

A Chatham County absentee ballot drop box is sealed following the deadline for the Nov. 3, 2020, general election. Credit: Laura Corley/The Current

A key section of SB 202 requires mail-in absentee ballots and applications to include voter ID information, either your driver’s license number or copy of other acceptable ID. Two-thirds of those voters polled support that requirement, with primary opposition coming from Democrats and Black voters. A majority of voters also oppose limiting absentee drop boxes, with only Republicans supporting the recent change.

A GPB News/WABE/NPR analysis found the law drastically reduced drop box access in urban/suburban areas with highest number of Democrats and nonwhite voters — and most of the drop box votes in 2020.

One issue that could have an outsized effect on this year’s midterms is abortion, after the Supreme Court effectively overturned federal abortion protections and Georgia’s 2019 law that outlaws virtually every abortion in the state has taken effect.

Fifty-four percent of voters polled strongly oppose the law, including the vast majority of voters under 45, Black voters, Democrats and independents and women. Overall, 69% of women surveyed either somewhat or strongly oppose the law, and women make up more than 53% of the typical electorate in Georgia.

The poll also found a plurality of voters said they are more likely to vote for a candidate who wants to protect access to abortion (47%) than limit abortion (29%), especially among women, Black voters, Democrats and independents.

Still, a similar share of voters say that rising prices have had a significant, negative impact on their day-to-day lives and nearly 70% say that the current cost of living affects their decision on how they will vote.

This story comes to The Current GA through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a non-profit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.

Stephen Fowler/GPB News

Stephen Fowler is political reporter for Georgia Public Broadcasting.