Roy Barnes is skating toward November, but John Oxendine and Karen Handel appear headed to an August showdown in the race for the Republican nomination foras governor, according to a new statewide poll conducted for the Georgia Newspaper Partnership.
The poll, released Wednesday, shows the Georgia electorate to be in a wrathful mood, with concerns over government spending and the economy driving a wider worry over the future of the country. Voters will get their chance to express that mood in Tuesday’s Republican and Democratic primaries.
Barnes, the former governor seeking a return to the office he lost in 2002, is pulling away from Attorney General Thurbert Baker in the race for the Democratic nomination, the poll found. Barnes gets 54 percent of the total vote to 20 percent for Baker. No other Democratic candidate is out of single digits. Barnes gets a majority of voters of either gender regardless of age and gets a plurality — 47 percent — of African-American voters.
The real race, then, is on the Republican side, where Oxendine, the state insurance commissioner, holds a a 12-point lead over Handel, the former secretary of state. Former U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, however, is within striking distance of earning a spot in the Aug. 10 runoff. The poll found Deal with 18 percent.
Former state Sen. Eric Johnson of Savannah is a distant fourth, with 6 percent.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and 12 other Georgia newspapers commissioned the poll. It was conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research from July 8 through July 13. A total of 400 likely Democratic primary voters and 400 likely Republican primary voters were interviewed statewide by telephone. There is a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points on both the Democratic and Republican results.
Oxendine, Handel and Deal all tried to spin the results as good news.
“This poll reaffirms that John’s message of downsizing state government, scrapping the income tax and fixing our infrastructure problems is exactly what Georgians want from their next governor,” said Stephen Puetz, Oxendine’s campaign manager. “We will continue to spend the next six days talking about why John is the best candidate to bring jobs back to Georgia.”
Handel and Deal both said the poll gave them a claim on a spot in the runoff with Oxendine.
“This, like every poll out there, shows momentum for Karen,” said Handel spokesman Dan McLagan said. “When we get into a runoff with John Oxendine, let me tell you, we’re going to beat him like a drum.”
Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said his man is “perfectly positioned to end up in the runoff against John Oxendine.”
“Georgia voters who have tuned in have only gotten a negative message from one candidate,” Robinson said, “and that’s Karen Handel.”
Johnson, the popular former state Senate leader, dismissed the poll results as under-representing his strength.
“This poll is absolutely wrong,” Johnson spokesman Ben Fry said, pointing to a number of other recent polls that have shown Johnson in a tight race for third and closer to Deal.
“With recent developments, numbers are moving by the day, and we are confident we will be just where we need to be on July 20,” Fry said. “While others are attacking each other and slinging mud, Eric is focused on sharing his plans to put Georgia back to work directly with Georgia voters.”
Barnes, despite his perch atop the Democratic pile, would not get drawn into a posture of paying attention to polls.
“We are not running a campaign that is based on poll numbers,” Barnes said. “From Day One, our campaign has been focused on ways to make Georgia work. The other candidates in this race are fine public servants, all of whom are running a vigorous campaign, and I am hopeful that we can continue to focus on the issues that matter to Georgians and not on poll numbers.”
Baker’s campaign is holding fast to its belief that voters will rally to his side.
“The more people hear about Thurbert’s plans to create 100,000 new jobs and transform our schools by adding bingo to the lottery, the more people support him,” Baker campaign manager Jeff DiSantis said. “A week is a lifetime in politics, and we’re confident about the outcome.”
David Poythress and DuBose Porter, who received the support of 7 percent and 3 percent, respectively, both said the poll is but a snapshot and does not reflect true voter sentiment.
Porter, the House minority leader, pointed to another recent poll that showed him getting 16 percent, tied with Baker, among those who have already voted.
“Sonny Perdue’s lead ([in 2002]) never showed up on polls until the day of the election,” Porter said. “The same thing is happening with us.”
Poythress said the polls thus far have mostly gauged name recognition.
“We think the numbers are very fluid. We think this whole race has been very slow coming into focus with a lot of voters. … There’s a lot of fluid motion in the electorate and will be right up until eElection dDay,” he said.
Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, said Baker still has a shot at forcing Barnes into a runoff, but it’s growing more and more remote.
“Barnes is winning a plurality of African-American voters, and they’re over 40 percent of the Democratic primary,” Coker said. “If the black vote was to suddenly fall off Barnes and coalesce behind Baker, you could see a runoff. But we don’t see that happening.”
Again, the real heat is on the Republican side, Coker said. There was a slight tightening of the results recorded Tuesday, and Coker said that could possibly be attributed to Sarah Palin’s decision Monday to endorse Handel.
“There might be a little bump from that,” Coker said. “I still see a lot of fluidity in the race. The undecided vote is 19 percent — that’s a lot of voters still in play.”
For Dionne Mack of Austell, that fluidity extends to which party’s primary to vote in.
“I’m just one of those people who votes for the person, not the party,” Mack said. “I want to look at all the facts, what they support, how they’ve voted in the past. I’m looking at the overall picture, not just one thing or the other.”
For other voters, however, the choice of party and candidate is clear, or at least mostly clear.
“I think I’m going with Nathan Deal,” said Phillip Coleman, 51, an accountant from Smyrna. “I’m 95 percent sure.”
The 5 percent hesitation, he said, is because he’s not actually crazy about Deal. But, he said, “I’m averse to Oxendine and I’m averse to Handel, which is not a great answer, obviously.”
Oxendine, Coleman said, has probably done a fine job as insurance commissioner, “but he just seems abrasive and self-centered.”
As for Handel, “I don’t have a good perception of her persona,” Coleman said. “She leaves me cold.”
But it was hot in Augusta on Wednesday, where Janice McDonald of Richmond County.
It’s the “year of the woman” in politics, McDonald said.
“We’re just into change for the better,” she said.
Jerry Nucklos is recently retired and lives in Canton. The 62-year-old said he plans to vote for Johnson in the primary.
“His presence, the ads I’ve seen sound a little more down to earth,” Nucklos said.
He said regardless of who wins, he plans to vote for the Republican nominee in the general election.
In Rome, William East plans to join the Barnes brigade on Tuesday.
“This state’s in pretty bad shape,” East said. “It needs somebody in there with experience.”
The poll’s results show most voters agree with East, that there are major issues to be decided by the next governor and that the economy is driving voter concern.
“Everything pivots around the economy,” Mason-Dixon’s Coker said.
The results also show Oxendine dominating any runoff for the Republican nomination. Handel gives him the closest challenge, where Oxendine wins 39 percent to 33 percent. Oxendine bests Deal 46 percent to 31 percent and Johnson 42 perent to 24 percent.
But, if Barnes is the ultimate Democratic nominee, the poll found him beating or tied with any Republican in a hypothetical general election match-up.
The question of who wins in November was asked of 625 registered voters from July 8 through July 11 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent. The poll found Barnes and Oxendine are tied at 42 percent, with 16 percent undecided, while Barnes tops Handel 45 percent to 34 percent and beats Deal 46 percent to 28 percent. Johnson gets 29 percent to Barnes’ 47 percent.
“This poll shows something that we’ve always known: John is the only Republican that offers a true contrast with Roy Barnes,” said Puetz, Oxendine’s campaign manager. “John is a conservative reformer who isn’t tied to the status quo.”
Melissa Weinman and Ashley Fielding of the Gainesville Times, Doug Walker of the Rome News-Tribune and Rodney Manley of the Macon Telegraph contributed.