Donald Trump’s continued presence on the American political scene is one of the reasons Republicans underperformed in this year’s midterm elections. The former president’s debilitating effect on his party was perhaps no more evident than in Georgia, where Trump’s Republican nemesis Gov. Brian Kemp cruised to reelection, while his preferred Senate candidate, Herschel Walker, was forced into a runoff with Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock.
Now with the Georgia Senate runoff just two days away, those problems are clearer than ever. Trump’s unpopularity in Georgia is causing him to stay out of the state in the campaign’s final days and is part of a deeper reshaping of political alignments in America.
To understand the Trump impact on Georgia, take a look at the CNN/SSRS poll of the Senate runoff released on Friday. Trump came in with a favorable rating of just 39% and an unfavorable rating of 54% among likely voters.
Of course, with Trump no longer president, you might think these numbers wouldn’t matter. After all, President Joe Biden isn’t significantly more popular in Georgia, with a favorable rating of 41% and an unfavorable rating of 52%, according to the CNN survey.
But when you break the poll down further, you see how Trump’s unpopularity is potentially keeping voters from casting a ballot for Walker. The former football star led Warnock by 87 points among voters who didn’t have a favorable view of Biden but had a favorable opinion of Trump.
That type of margin would have been more than enough for Walker to win, if it held among all voters who view Biden unfavorably. The problem for Walker is that voters who had a favorable opinion of Trump and not one of Biden made up only 37% of the electorate in our poll.
A sizable 21% of likely Georgia voters had a favorable view of neither Biden nor Trump. This group of voters still preferred Walker to Warnock, but only by 14 points.
So in other words, there was an over 70-point difference in Walker’s margin among those who didn’t like Biden, based on whether they liked Trump or not.
Warnock’s ability to keep Walker’s margins down among those who liked neither Biden nor Trump works for him mathematically because the poll found him leading by 100 points among the 40% of likely voters who just liked Biden.
To put in perspective how unusual it is for a former president to have such a strong effect, consider the last time there was an unpopular Republican president who had recently left the White House. In a September 2010 CNN pre-election poll, Republican House candidates were still winning voters who didn’t like George W. Bush (the former president) or Barack Obama (the the incumbent) by about 50 points.
If Walker was winning those who didn’t like Biden or Trump by 50 points, he’d be leading in our Georgia poll.
A new demographic divide
Trump’s influence on Georgia voters isn’t merely about his favorable or unfavorable ratings, though. Examine the coalitions Walker and Warnock are relying on to win.
Not surprisingly, Walker leads among White voters and Warnock with Black voters. This is what you’d expect in most closely divided states.
But what might have floored a political analyst a mere eight years ago is the extent of the educational divide among White voters in Georgia. Walker was ahead 83% to 17% among White voters without a college degree. His lead shrunk to 51% to 47% among White voters with a college degree.
Compare that with what we saw in the 2014 Senate exit poll from Georgia (i.e., the last Senate election in the Peach State before Trump first announced for president). Republican David Perdue won 80% of White non-college-educated voters and 70% of White college-educated voters.
Indeed, arguably the biggest reason Democrats are now competitive in Georgia elections is how much more Democratic college-educated White voters have become. The way Trump built coalitions (i.e., relying on non-college-educated White voters at the expense of college-educated White voters) is a large part of that.
Unlike in most states, though, there wasn’t a lot of ground Republicans could gain among non-college-educated White voters in Georgia. They were already solidly Republican. There was a ton of ground, however, that the GOP could lose among White voters with a college degree.
This made Georgia a perfect place for Democrats to make gains because a significant portion of the state’s White population holds a college degree. In the CNN poll, 45% of likely White runoff voters have a college degree.
When Warnock combines support from these White college-educated voters with the deeply Democratic Black vote (who made up nearly 30% of the likely electorate in the CNN poll), it gives him a small advantage as the campaign comes to a close.
A Warnock victory in the runoff could be attributable to a number of things, including Walker’s own popularity problems.
Still, I think the argument could be made that Warnock’s good chance of winning probably started when Trump decided to run for president seven and a half years ago.