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History against Big Guy in possible runoff

With Gov. Sonny Perdue hovering around 50 percent in most recent polls and Mark Taylor in the low 30s, it appears the lieutenant governor's best chance for an upset would be in a runoff.

Under Georgia law, candidates must receive at least 50 percent of the vote plus one to win. If the first-place candidate fails to reach that majority, the top two vote getters meet again in a runoff four weeks after Election Day.

Libertarian gubernatorial hopeful Garrett Michael Hayes has been polling at 8 to 9 percent, well above where Libertarians tend to finish in statewide races.

If Hayes continues that surprisingly strong showing up through and including Nov. 7, it could drag Republican Perdue down below that magical 50 percent mark and into an extra round with Democrat Taylor.

At first glance, the possibility of a runoff has to be encouraging to a challenger who has been running about 20 points down since winning the Democratic nomination in the July 18 primary.

But a deeper look shows that a runoff campaign would be a steep uphill fight for Taylor or, for that matter, any Democrat in a similar position.

First, there's the historical record, although in Georgia's case, the history is brief.

In 1992, the late Paul Coverdell, a Republican, defeated Democratic U.S. Sen. Wyche Fowler in a runoff after coming in second on Election Day.

Fowler edged Coverdell in the general election 49 percent to 48 percent but was held below a majority because of the presence of a Libertarian candidate.

But when they met again in a runoff, as the top two vote getters, Coverdell came out the winner with 51 percent of the vote to 49 percent for Fowler.

The key to Coverdell's victory was that Republicans did a better job than Democrats of getting their voters back to the polls for the runoff.

The turnout fell in both cases, a natural consequence of holding an election at an odd time of the year with only one race on the ballot.

But the Republican dropoff was less. While Coverdell received 438,168 fewer votes in the runoff than the general election, Fowler lost 489,539, enough to give Coverdell the win.

Republicans outdid Democrats in showing up at the polls in two other Georgia general election runoffs.

Also in 1992, GOP Public Service Commission candidate Bobby Baker padded his margin of victory in a runoff win over Democrat John Frank Collins. Baker's lead was only about 15,000 after Election Day, but he won the runoff by more than 150,000 votes.

In a three-way legislative race from 2000, Republican Ginger Collins finished about 1,300 votes behind Democrat Randy Sauder on Election Day in a House district in Cobb County, only to clobber her opponent in the runoff by more than 3,000 votes. Republicans upset with Sauder for switching parties piled onto Collins' bandwagon during the runoff race.

Those might be dismissed as a handful of episodes if it weren't for demographics with some common sense sprinkled in for good measure.

If the people most likely to vote are those who are the most informed on the issues, a logical axiom, it would follow that the most informed tend to be the most highly educated.

And that's where the demographic research consistently favors the GOP, particularly in a low-turnout election like a runoff.

"Republicans tend to be better educated and have higher incomes,'' said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. "Those are two correlations for whether you vote under any circumstance.''

Another factor that could affect the results of a Perdue-Taylor runoff is this year's congressional elections.

Ironically, a takeover of the House or Senate by Democrats on Nov. 7 - which is being forecast in numerous polls - could help Georgia's Republican governor a month later by energizing angry GOP loyalists.

In 1992, the Coverdell-Fowler runoff was the first chance for Republicans to extract a measure of revenge after Democrat Bill Clinton captured the White House. With only one race to focus on, Republican donors across the country poured money into the Coverdell campaign.

"Republicans had an extreme incentive to vote because they had just lost the presidency,'' Bullock said. "We may see the same thing in 2006 if the Republicans lose Congress.''

E-mail Dave Williams at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com. Have any thoughts about this column? Share them with us at letters@gwinnettdailypost.com. Letters should be no more than 200 words and are subject to approval by the publisher. Letters may be edited for style and space requirements. Please sign your name and provide an address and a daytime telephone number. Address letters for publication to: Letters to the Editor, Gwinnett Daily Post, P.O. Box 603, Lawrenceville, GA 30046-0603. The fax number is 770-339-8081.