If anyone familiar with recent presidential electoral history said they weren't a little surprised by the 2008 election results in Georgia, they're probably bluffing.
The only Deep South state in the last 5 presidential elections to see a Democrat come within 5 points of a Republican would hardly be recognizable to the Georgia that re-elected George W. Bush by 17 points just eight and a half years ago.
Yet four years later, the McCain-Palin ticket earned a worryingly low 52% of the vote, while Obama-Biden nabbed 47%, the highest percentage for a Democrat in the Deep South since Bill Clinton's 52% Louisiana victory in 1996.
And again in 2012, the year that Republicans were supposed to take back the White House after four years of a sluggish economy, Romney's margin over Obama was much closer than GOP strategists would have liked (slightly less than 8 points), and far from an '04-like landslide.
Though for all their recent success at the presidential level, Georgia Democrats remain in pretty rough shape statewide.
In 12 statewide elections for President, Governor, or Senate since 2000, Democrats have won ONE (and that was in 2000).
But fortunately for likely 2014 Democratic Senate nominee Michelle Nunn, her father and former 24 year U.S. Senator Sam Nunn is one of the few Georgia Democrats that still carries any sort of considerable bipartisan clout, boasting a 50% favorable rating with Democrats, a 58% rating with Republicans, and 64% with Independents. And if recent PPP poll results are any indication, his daughter is making good use of his political capital.
Of the seven total candidates tested against Nunn in a hypothetical 2014 Senate race, the Democrat leads or ties ALL of them, earning between 40-42% of the total vote. Her Republican opponents garner between 35-41%.
So, you can see why Georgia Democrats might find reason to rejoice in the wake of PPP's latest release. With the sole exception of the 2008 Senate contest between Saxby Chambliss and Jim Martin (pre-run-off, and in a wave year), Democrats really haven't come close to beating Republicans in statewide elections for 13 years.
So why were a few pundits quick to dismiss PPP's results on Wednesday?
2014 just happens to fall during Obama's second term, which historically speaking, has been VERY harsh to the incumbent President's party.
But more than that, as Real Clear Politics Senior Elections Analyst Sean Trende noted on Twitter, most of the undecided voters in the PPP poll are likely to lean to the GOP Senate candidate.
Consider the chart below, which highlights the percentage of poll respondents who said they were "not sure" regarding their 2014 Senate vote, broken down by 2012 presidential vote, party I.D., and ideological I.D.:
As you can see, 2012 Romney supporters, Republican voters, and Conservatives are more undecided than 2012 Obama voters, Democratic voters, and Liberals
Expanding further on Trende's tweets, he notes the following:
PPP finds that GA-Sen is a close race. Problem 1: Respondents supported Romney over Obama by 7 points; was 8 in '12, will be more in '14.
— Sean Trende (@SeanTrende) August 6, 2013
Using his logic, PPP's finding showing 2012 Barack Obama voters comprising 43% of the electorate is as optimistic as Romney's 50% share is pessimistic.
Unfortunately for researchers, no exit polling was conducted in Georgia in 2012 or 2010, and pre 2004-state election polling can be hard to come by for those without Ropers or Voters News Service subscriptions. And even in the limited circumstances where Georgia exit polling data is available, voters are not asked who they voted for in the previous presidential election.
There is, however, a plethora of national exit poll data available, and based on that, Trende's tweet from above seems entirely accurate:
Of the 9 midterm elections in which exit polling was conducted, respondents claimed to have voted for the Republican presidential candidate in the previous election by a larger margin than they actually did in 7 of them. John McCain, George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan all performed much better among midterm election voters than they actually fared with voters in the prior presidential election.
In fact, the Republicans net margin against Democrats has averaged SIX points higher in midterm elections than in the previous presidential election.
Supposing that Trende is correct, and the 2014 Georgia Senate electorate will be more pro-Romney than it was in 2012, how might the PPP results have differed, all other findings remaining the same, if, say, 53% of poll respondents voted for Romney last November, and 39% voted for Obama (the result if you add the average 6 point Republican swing onto Romney's 53-45% victory in Georgia in 2012, while also maintaining PPP's "voted for someone else" percentage):
In match-ups between Nunn and the top three 2014 Georgia Senate GOP primary vote-getters (Paul Broun, Phil Gingrey, and Jack Kingston), Republicans would see a 4 point shift in their favor against Nunn in the event that the 2014 general Georgia electorate is 6 points more pro-Romney than in 2012.
But lets pull in the other point made by several critics on twitter - namely, that the majority of undecided voters are likely to break Republican.
As pointed out in the first table above, a larger percentage of self-identified 2012 Romney voters remain undecided in the 2014 Senate race than 2012 Obama voters, sometimes significantly so. How would the PPP poll have looked if we assume all undecided Romney voters break in favor of the Republican Senate candidate, while all undecided Obama voters break in favor of Michelle Nunn?
As expected, such a scenario would have created a more favorable environment for Republicans, as Broun, Gingrey, and Kingston all take the lead over Michelle Nunn.
And what happens if we pull in both major critiques of the PPP GA Senate poll toplines (that Reps/Cons/Romney voters are likely to break for the Republican candidate while Dems/Libs/Obama voters are likely to break for Nunn, AND that the 2014 electorate is likely to feature more Romney supporters than in 2012)?
Republicans fortunes in the Georgia Senate race get suddenly very sunny:
Clearly, this is a super-speculative post that includes TONS of assumptions. But if conservative assertions that Nunn is hitting her electoral ceiling in Georgia, while Republican challengers are at their floor are correct, all of the above scenarios would seem feasible.
Having said this, nothing in the data above suggests that Republicans have room to get cocky about their odds in Georgia. Even allowing for some pretty rosy electoral scenarios for the Republican candidates, Nunn remains remarkably close to her GOP foes, and is almost always within PPP's margin of error.
The 2014 Georgia Senate race almost certainly leans Republican, but Democrats have put up their best hope for a take-over by far. If anyone can break the drought of statewide-Democratic losses that has existed since Zell Miller's election to the Senate in 2000, it would be a Nunn.