Georgia runoffs: Where have all the pollsters gone?

Their credibility has been a long time passing, to be sure, but that hasn’t stopped pollsters from flooding the electoral zone. Until now, that is, as Politico’s Steven Shepard noticed yesterday in Georgia. Two Senate runoff races with the balance of power at stake offer a golden opportunity to make polling hay while the national-media sun shines.

So where are all the pollsters? They’re, um, busy … or something:

Something’s missing from Georgia’s high-stakes Senate runoffs: the polls.

After a disastrous November election for the polling industry, when the polls again underestimated President Donald Trump (who lost regardless) as well as GOP candidates down the ballot, pollsters are mostly sidelined in the run-up to the Jan. 5 Georgia elections, which most observers regard as toss-ups.

The public polls that drove so much of the news coverage ahead of November — and generated tremendous distrust afterward — have all but disappeared in Georgia, and they are set to stay that way: Some of the most prolific, best-regarded media and academic pollsters told POLITICO they have no plans to conduct pre-election surveys in Georgia.

Yeah, yeah, they won’t be missed, I know, but … it’s still a bit weird. The campaigns are still using their own pollsters, Shepard reports, but even the candidates aren’t making their strategic decisions based on their data. That’s in part because the runoffs have turned into a brute-force partisan contest in which both sides have decided that base turnout matters most. Neither party is making a play for the middle, at least not directly; they’re painting their opponents as extremists and the contest as existential.

On the extremist theme, at least one side has a point. And it happens to be the same side that’s winning the air war:

Republicans hold an overall advertising advantage across the state, largely fueled by $86 million in outside spending supporting their candidates, compared to just $30 million spent by Democratic outside groups on TV advertising so far, according to AdImpact. Democratic candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock are hauling in record small-dollar cash, far ahead of GOP Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler — but not enough to own the airwaves.

Super PACs pay more per ad than candidates do, so Ossoff and Warnock have been able to blunt the GOP’s financial edge, especially in the Atlanta media market, where nearly two-thirds of people in the state reside. But GOP TV ads are running in much higher rotation in other markets, according to data from AdImpact, and the disparity has sparked concern among Democrats that the two campaigns aren’t getting enough help with control of the Senate on the line.

Interviews with a dozen Democratic strategists and donors outlined several key reasons why Republicans have been able to build an advertising advantage. There’s fatigue among Democrats’ biggest donors after pouring millions into the 2020 general election, as well as mild skepticism that Ossoff and Warnock can actually win. …

Most crucially, there is growing suspicion among some Democratic donors — grounded in the party’s failure to flip control of the Senate in November — that massive TV ad campaigns don’t equal success, and money might be put to better use with organizations operating on the ground in Georgia instead of on the air.

Gee, who would have ever thought that? Too bad no one wrote a book explaining how the ground game is more important than 30,000-foot messaging. Unfortunately for Democrats, Republicans started figuring that out six years ago, and now have a superior ground game as well. That accounts for the GOP’s surprising wins in 2020 at all levels below the presidency in a high-turnout election.

It’s that mix that is likely scaring off pollsters this time around, at least from publishing any results. We’re six weeks into this runoff election with only two to go, and thus far we’ve only had Trafalgar, Emerson, Insider Advantage, and Survey USA in the playing field — hardly the A-Team of polling. The SUSA polls are weird outliers, Trafalgar is a GOP-linked outfit, and only Emerson really has any independent reputation at all.

Speaking of weird outliers, SUSA again shows Democrats up past the margin of error, with Perdue trailing by five and Loeffler trailing by seven. The polls both weirdly ask the non-voters which candidates they would choose, and again use a sample that has a very strange partisan composition of 40% GOP, 39% Democrats, and 15% independents. Even with the two SUSA results factored into the aggregates, both Republicans have slight leads in the RealClearPolitics averages.

That’s the kind of vacuum in which competitors might feast. One has to wonder why they’re not at least attempting to compete. Are they truly sitting on the sidelines? Or are they testing their systems and waiting for the runoff results as a way to improve their polling processes? It seems almost inconceivable that pollsters wouldn’t take advantage of at least one of these opportunities in Georgia.