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Daily Kos political director David Nir greets former President Jimmy Carter and Georgia state Sen. Jason Carter at a March 2014 fundraiser for Jason Carter's gubernatorial campaign
Daily Kos political director David Nir greets Jason—and Jimmy—Carter
In a year with few opportunities for Democrats to play offense, especially on the Senate front, Michelle Nunn and Jason Carter have emerged as strong contenders for the party to pick up Georgia's open Senate seat and reclaim its governor's mansion. A recent poll confirms that both are competitive, despite Georgia's red hue: Carter, a state senator and grandson of President Jimmy Carter, trails incumbent Gov. Nathan Deal by three points while Nunn, a non-profit CEO and daughter of ex-Sen. Sam Nunn, leads all her potential Republican opponents.

But there's an obstacle for both Democrats: Georgia's general election runoff system. Under Georgia law, any race in which no candidate clears 50 percent on Nov. 4 heads to a runoff between the top two candidates. And thanks to a court ruling delaying any federal runoffs so that overseas voters have sufficient time to cast their ballots, there will actually be two separate runoffs, if needed: one on Dec. 2, for the governor's race, and another on Jan. 6, for the Senate contest.

It's certainly possible for Carter and/or Nunn to win a runoff, but Democrats are likely to run into several problems that make the best case scenario avoiding runoffs in the first place. And that won't be easy either. Head below the fold to learn more about both issues.

First, the Democrats' depressingly familiar turnout problem in midterm elections—especially among minorities—will likely pose even greater difficulties if either race goes into overtime.

The 2008 elections offer a relevant illustration. Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss was just barely forced into a runoff after receiving 49.8 percent of the vote in November, while Democrat Jim Martin narrowly trailed with 46.8 percent. But in December, just a month later, turnout dropped by a hefty 43 percent, from 3.7 million to 2.1 million, and Chambliss triumphed by a wide margin, 57 to 43.

And while there were no exit polls of the runoff, there were signs that a big part of the reason for Chambliss' improved performance was that the share of African-American voters shrunk considerably from the general election to the runoff. Nate Silver crunched the numbers in a post-mortem, speculating that it cost Martin a net of about 4 to 9 points.

It's probable Democrats will face this sort of drop-off again, and not just among black voters but among other groups, such as younger voters, whose participation typically dips in off-schedule elections.

One key difference, as Nate Cohn notes, is that 2014 is a midterm and that Democratic turnout will already be at a much lower level in November than in a presidential year like 2008. The idea is that the drop in turnout between November 2008 to December 2008 simply mirrored the usual drop between a presidential race and a midterm election. If this is true, then Democrats do not have to fear a drastic drop-off from one round to the next this year.

This is possible, though there are few cases of major races going to a runoff in a midterm year that we could learn from. A rare example of such a race is Louisiana's Senate race in 2002, when Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu rose from 46 percent in November's jungle primary to 51.7 percent in the runoff amidst remarkably steady turnout.

In the lead-up to the November election, Landrieu had been criticized by black leaders for tying herself too closely to President Bush (see this ad) and for depressing African-American turnout—a problem she successfully addressed in the runoff by changing her campaign team and strategies. She also benefited from the appearance of a magic bullet (aimed in part at Bush) at the 11th hour.

While it is hard to draw hard conclusions from one race, especially given its peculiar circumstances, at least Landrieu's success in 2002 provides a blueprint—as well as hope—for Nunn, Carter, and Landrieu herself in 2014, should any of them find themselves in a runoff.

Further difficulties arise from the fact that the two runoffs are scheduled for different times. A second round of voting might pose an even bigger hurdle for Nunn. A Senate runoff wouldn't be held until 2015—just after the holidays, with the general election already far from voters' minds. And in the event of dual runoffs, a Jan. 6 election would represent the third time voters would get called to the polls in scarcely two months. That would further depress turnout among the demographics already least apt to vote, particularly if Carter were to lose his own runoff.

Again, none of this is to say that Nunn and Carter can't win in a runoff, only that their chances of coming out on top appear higher on Nov. 4. The question then is, though, what do these hopefuls have to do to reach 50 percent in the general election?

Both contests will feature a Libertarian Party candidate, and a Socialist Workers Party candidate will also appear on the ballot in the governor's race. The presence of these minor-party alternatives makes it harder for both major party candidates to clear the 50 percent mark, and it's why runoffs are even a possibility in the first place.

What's interesting is that the Libertarians, who've run in many statewide races in Georgia over the last decade, tend to pull in a very consistent share of the vote. In all but one of the elections for senate, governor, lieutenant governor and secretary of state since 2002, Libertarians have earned between 2.1 and 4.0 percent, averaging about 3 percent.

So, it's ultimately pretty simple: If the Libertarians this year perform according to historical patterns, that means Carter and Nunn likely need to defeat their Republican opponents by at least two points and perhaps by as many as four—or a touch more—on Nov. 4 in order to avoid runoffs. Anything less than that books them a winter date; anything more may well be enough to end the race right then and there.

It's worth noting that a handful of early gubernatorial polls have found Libertarian Andrew Hunt taking from 7 to 11 percent, though, that's not likely to hold until Election Day, as third-party candidates often poll at much higher levels than they end up receiving. Needless to say, if either Hunt or Senate candidate Amanda Swafford do get close to such levels, it would significantly increase the chances that we see runoffs.

Therefore, if you see polls showing either race close in the coming months, remember that the Democrats' real hope is to come out at least a couple of points ahead on election night. Otherwise, they'll have just a few weeks to figure out how to resolve the turnout problems that have plagued them in so many irregularly scheduled elections.

7:31 PM PT: Here is some more evidence to suggest that voters are less likely to head to the polls for a runoff than for the regularly-scheduled midterms: In 2008, not only did turnout drop by 43 percent from the general election to the runoff, but the runoff's electorate was 17 percent smaller than than that of the 2010 midterms. (It was, however, comparable to that of the 2006 midterms, which had no competitive statewide race.) Georgia's 1992 Senate runoff tells a similar story: The electorate was 44 percent smaller than that of that year's general election, 14 percent lower than that of the 1990 midterms, and 19 percent lower than that of the 1994 midterms.

Originally posted to Daily Kos Elections on Sun May 18, 2014 at 12:59 PM PDT.

Also republished by Daily Kos.

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