News Release: Law, Politics

Nov. 25,  2009

Atlanta's Mayoral Runoff: What to Expect

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Emory political scientist Michael Leo Owens gives his views on the forthcoming Atlanta mayoral runoff set for Tuesday, Dec. 2:

Q:  Will the voter turnout be any better? How much will GOTV matter on election day?

A:  Atlanta is a city too busy or too listless to vote. Thus, voter turnout may or may not be any better for the runoff. On the one hand, many of the 75 percent of registered voters who stayed home during the last election did it because they anticipated a runoff. They bided their time. A good number of them will now vote in the runoff, and their numbers could be great enough to swing the election. Also, the policy differences and records of achievement and inaction between Norwood and Reed are clear and meaningful enough for greater numbers of registered voters to show up at the polls. On the other hand, turnout may be as low if not lower than before. First, this is a runoff election. We should expect a drop in turnout, not an increase. Second, the length of the campaign has exhausted segments of the electorate. They voted once and they may not vote again. Third, there is a general dissatisfaction with both candidates, which contributed to the low turnout a few weeks ago. Fourth, neither campaign has an electoral machine capable of guaranteeing strong turnout.

At the end of the day, the winner will be the one who converts motivation into mobilization. The edge could go to Norwood. Her partisans are extremely motivated and mobilized to see her win and to send an array of messages to City Hall (e.g., stop raising taxes, provide more efficient services, be accessible, etc.). Reed’s supporters are as motivated as Norwood’s but it’s unclear if they are as mobilized. Unless he can figure out how to increase turnout for him, especially in working-class Black neighborhoods and racial-transition neighborhoods where he did poorly, all the motivation in the world may not matter.

Q:  What’s been most notable about each campaign this past month leading up to the run-off?

A:  Both campaigns have flipped the political script. One, Norwood was the first to go negative in the runoff, implying that Reed was a tax scofflaw. Front-runners are expected to remain on the high road. Two, Norwood went underground for the first week after the election. Front-runners are supposed to be out in front, literally and always. Third, the White candidate is the “racial” candidate. Norwood has subtly racialized the campaign by reminding the electorate that the election is “not about race” while making clear and overt appeals to Black voters, especially through Black surrogates and web-based videos. Fourth, Reed has focused less on paid advertisements and more on free media. He’s used his almost daily announcements of key endorsements to generate publicity, interest and momentum.

Q:  How much has race been a factor in this campaign and how much will it matter in determining the winner?

A:  Race remains an element of Atlanta politics, even in 2009. This explains, for example, why some White voters saw Lisa Borders' endorsement of Reed after her third-place finish as a "racial" endorsement -- one Black person supporting another Black person to prevent the election of a White person. It also explains why some White voters have publicly expressed support for Norwood because she’s White and thus deemed essentially different from the Black candidate and a break from the legacy of black mayors. Plus, race matters when some voters make choices based on “qualifications” and “experience.” None of this is to suggest that race is the dominant attribute of Atlanta politics. Rather, it is an enduring one, especially in light of 36 years of Black control of the city government, dramatic increases in the number of Whites moving into the city, and the reality of racial inequalities that politics seems incapable of reducing.

Surprisingly, race has played a far smaller role than many pundits anticipated. They feared (or hoped for) racial ugliness. They did not get it. Neither Norwood nor Reed wished to get bogged down in debates over race, even if some of those debates are necessary to understand their policy stances (e.g., racialized poverty in the city, redevelopment of public housing, contracts to minority firms, etc.). Also, neither candidate wanted to be painted as "racist" or be caught appealing to narrow racial interests.

Q:  What would be the significance of a Norwood win?

A:  If Mary Norwood wins, it will be by winning the most votes in a majority-Black city without winning the majority of votes from Blacks. In that way, she’ll be like Obama, who won the most votes in a majority-White nation without winning the majority of votes from Whites.


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