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This Pollster Thinks GOP Opposition to $2,000 COVID Checks May Cost Republicans the Senate

National Review logo National Review 1/5/2021 Tobias Hoonhout
David Perdue et al. standing in front of a sign: Senators Kelly Loeffler (R., Ga.) and David Perdue (R., Ga.), wave during a campaign event in Milton, Ga., December 21, 2020. © Al Drago/Reuters Senators Kelly Loeffler (R., Ga.) and David Perdue (R., Ga.), wave during a campaign event in Milton, Ga., December 21, 2020.

For Republican pollster Robert Cahaly, December 23 was the day “the bottom fell out” for the GOP in the all-important Georgia Senate runoff that will determine which party controls the upper chamber for the next two years.

Cahaly’s Trafalgar Group was a rare outlier in 2016 in correctly predicting Trump’s upset, but proved a mixed bag in 2020 — though closer than some polls, Trafalgar incorrectly predicted a Trump victory and missed on Biden’s win in Georgia. Since the November general, Cahaly has regularly polled his home state in the buildup to the two races between Republicans David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler and Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, respectively.

For much of December, Trafalgar showed Republicans consistently trending up in the red-leaning state. One poll released on December 18 showed the Republicans in the driver’s seat, with Loeffler leading Warnock by nearly seven points and Perdue pulling ahead of Ossoff by nearly three points.

But Trafalgar’s subsequent poll, conducted from December 23 to December 27, showed a dramatic shift, with both Democrats taking a narrow lead. Cahaly said the only explanation he could summon for the abrupt shift was President Trump’s call to increase COVID relief checks from $600 to $2,000 — defying his own hand-picked negotiators with a plan quickly endorsed by Democrats.

“Literally the 23rd is when this thing moved,” Cahaly told National Review. “. . .  Nothing changed the polling like that. It was just like a bomb went off.”

Loeffler and Perdue eventually endorsed Trump’s call for $2,000 checks on December 29. But Cahaly said the dynamic of having a Senate controlled by Mitch McConnell — who has called the increased payments “socialism for rich people” — gives Democrats the populist advantage.

“People who work for a living, work hard, they don’t see this money as government dependence,” Cahaly said of the checks. “They see it as a one-time thing because the government told them not to go to work. And they don’t understand why McConnell blocked it, they just don’t get it.”

Cahaly pointed out that Democrats are hammering home the point that a Republican-led Senate will deprive Georgians of increased aid. During a Monday rally in Atlanta, President-elect Joe Biden said that the “checks will never get there” if Loeffler and Perdue are reelected.

“The argument Democrats are making is, ‘You elected McConnell, and you’ll keep electing McConnell, so it’s still your fault,’” Cahaly explained. “For six weeks, the Republicans have been telling the voters of Georgia, ‘You don’t want Chuck Schumer.’ And now Chuck Schumer, and Donald Trump, and Leffler, and Perdue say we want you to have the $2,000.”

While Republican messaging has centered around protecting the Republican majority — illustrated by Loeffler’s “Save the Senate and Save America” tour and Perdue’s “Win Georgia save America” slogan — Cahaly said that Democrats have “flipped the script” by painting the status quo Republican majority as the obstacle standing between them and COVID relief.

“Very rarely in politics do you have a situation where the voters are going to get a check from the government that you get a vote on before the election” he said. “And if that does happen, you need to be perceived as on the side of getting the bigger check, and the people that you have put in charge need to be on the side of that.”

He added that Georgia Democrats “have run a very clever campaign” by highlighting the discrepancy.

“It’s all designed to make Trump people be disenchanted, because they see the same thing we do, and they’re clever and they’re fast. I just see the Democrats as clever and fast and reactive. Just like how both Democrats engaged for the $2,000 after Trump said it, before either of the Republicans did. That’s just a speed of operation thing,” he said.

Heading into election day, Trafalgar’s final poll shows that Republicans have narrowed the race — Loeffler leads Warnock 49.7 to 48.4 percent while Ossoff leads Perdue by 0.9 points. Only roughly two percent of voters remain undecided in each race.

“I still see Loeffler’s race as the easier one to win, because Warnock is a harder candidate to get middle-of-the-road people to be behind,” Cahaly said. “We’ve always had Loeffler a little higher than Perdue, but they’re pretty much in the same boat.”

As for effective messaging, Cahaly said that Ossoff’s business ties to China — first reported by National Review — and Warnock’s status as a “pro-choice pastor” have both shown up in their surveys. He also said that “rich and out-of-touch” is a common descriptor with Loeffler and Perdue, a point only exacerbated by the recent $2,000 check uproar.

“We see around 17 percent of the black vote not for Warnock, because there’s a very strong pro-life thread running through the black community, and a lot of black voters, they’re not for Warnock because they’ve never heard of a pastor who’s pro-choice. That bothers them,” he elaborated. “With Warnock what you hear is pro-choice and anti-cop; with Ossoff you hear China. And to be fair, with Loeffler and Perdue you hear rich and out of touch, and ‘don’t support Trump enough.’ These are the messages that seem to be purveying.”

In addition to their reluctance to join populists like Senator Josh Hawley (R., Mo.) in calling for increased COVID aid, Republicans also missed an opportunity by failing to call out the increasingly extreme gun-control agenda favored by prominent Democrats, Cahaly said.

“I watch the news every day, I really watch for commercials. I’ve seen so little talk about gun rights. I’ve seen all kinds of ads, but very little talk about it,” he said. “And gun rights are something that goes across socioeconomic and racial lines in the state of Georgia. They’re very popular. And there are two Democrat senators who are on board with the plan of putting higher taxes on guns, and ammunition, and high capacity magazines. I don’t understand why they’re not talking about this.”

But ultimately, Cahaly thinks that the race will come down to massive Election Day turnout for Republicans. While many feel the presidential election was rigged against Trump, those who spoke to National Review last week said they planned to vote for Loeffler and Perdue.

“Whatever it takes to get that turnout to be 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 million. I think anything that crosses the 1 million threshold is when the Republicans’ margin on Election Day can offset what the Democrats have done in early voting,” he stated, pointing to Trump’s Monday night rally as crucial.

“Anything that can be done to light a fire under those who do like Trump to turn out is to the Republicans’ advantage,” Cahaly explained. “The message that I think he has to deliver if he wants to save this thing, that he did not derail, is, ‘It doesn’t matter whether you like them, it doesn’t matter whether you like everything they’ve done, it doesn’t matter whether you like McConnell, I’m asking you to vote for them as a favor to me.’”

Asked Tuesday morning if Trump did enough — speaking to supporters in northwest Georgia, the president promised to campaign against Georgia’s Republican governor Brian Kemp in 2022 — Cahaly texted, “he did good but didn’t ask them to vote as if it were for him.”

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