By GARY LANGER, CHRISTINE FILER and STEVEN SPARKS, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) — Black voters and Democrats held on to their share of the electorate in Georgia’s runoff election Tuesday, with voters overall split down the middle on preferred control of the U.S. Senate — a recipe for two more extraordinarily tight races in a state that recently was reliably Republican.

Black people — a core Democratic group — accounted for 29% of voters in the ABC News exit poll, essentially the same number, 28%, from November. And 36% of all voters were Democrats, as were 34% two months ago. Democratic turnout often flags in runoffs; not so this time.

Voters’ views on a top issue — whether the Republican or Democratic Party should control the U.S. Senate – could hardly have been closer: They split 49-49% on the question in one of the two races, 49-48% in the other. The GOP needed either of the two Senate seats in play to retain control, while the Democrats needed both to win it.

Another result further underscored Georgia’s virtually even political split — and demonstrated how Democrats held their own in turnout for the runoff. Voters in both races report having voted by a virtually even 48-47% for Donald Trump vs. Joe Biden in November.

While participation by Black voters was key, smaller groups may matter as well in the final outcomes, which were yet to be projected late Tuesday. Hispanic voters, for example, accounted for just 5% of voters, but Democrat Jon Ossoff won 63% of their votes — up from 52% in the November exit poll. Fellow Democrat Raphael Warnock had a similar level of support among Hispanics. And both won about six in 10 Asian voters, 2% of the electorate.

At the same time, the results indicated a decline in turnout in the Democrats’ best age group, voters younger than 30. They accounted for 13% of all voters, down from 20% in Ossoff’s race against David Perdue and 19% in Warnock’s contest against Kelly Loeffler in November.

Most of the difference was made up by a 6- or 7-point rise in the share of voters age 65+, the best age group for the Republicans. While Ossoff and Warnock both won 67% of under-30s, Perdue and Loeffler both were supported by 62% of the more-numerous seniors.

Liberal?

In another focus of the race, sizable numbers of voters — albeit fewer than half — accepted the “too liberal” labels the Republican candidates sought to pin on their Democratic opponents. Forty-five percent saw Warnock as too liberal, as did 44% for Ossoff. Fewer, 35% respectively, saw either Loeffler or Perdue as too conservative.

That said, ratings as being “about right” ideologically were similar for all four candidates — 49% for Loeffler and Perdue alike, and 46% for both Warnock and Ossoff. About one in 10 saw Loeffler and Perdue as too liberal, despite their strongly conservative positioning.

The “too liberal” argument was a key line of GOP offense in the race. Perdue last week called Warnock and Ossoff “two of the most liberal candidates that the Democrats have ever put up,” while Loeffler called Warnock “a rubber stamp for socialism.”

Election integrity

At the same time, most voters rejected efforts to dispute the outcome of the state’s presidential election, in which Biden defeated Trump by about 12,000 votes out of nearly 5 million cast. Despite Trump’s unsupported allegations of fraud, 57% of runoff voters thought the presidential election in Georgia was conducted fairly; four in 10 said not.

Most also expressed at least some confidence in the current election, held because no Senate candidate exceeded 50% in November. Seventy-three percent were very or somewhat confident that votes in the runoff would be counted accurately, while 26% were not very or not at all confident in this. Still, that was down from a similar question in November, when 85% were very or somewhat confident that votes in their state would be counted accurately.

Some GOP observers expressed concern that Trump-inspired doubts about the integrity of the election could keep Republican voters from participating. While the exit poll doesn’t reflect the views of non-voters, among those who did vote, confidence in the count was markedly lower among Republicans — just 54% were very or somewhat confident that runoff votes would be counted accurately, vs. 71% of independents and 96% of Democrats.

Pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic was another central issue; the state is at record levels of new COVID-19 cases, with one of the fastest-growing per-capita rates in the country.

Fifty-two percent said containing the virus now is more important than rebuilding the economy — about the same as said so in November, 51%. Now, as then, the issue sharply differentiated the vote. Those focused on containing the virus favored Warnock and Ossoff, while those more concerned with the economy broadly backed Loeffler and Perdue.

Additionally, 68% were very or somewhat worried that they or a family member may catch the coronavirus, and 54% said the pandemic has caused them financial hardship — including 15%, “severe” hardship.

Those who were very worried about the virus supported Warnock and Ossoff by about 30-point margins. The races tightened to a virtual dead heat about those who were “somewhat” worried, and flipped broadly to Loeffler and Perdue among those less worried.

Groups

Turnout among partisan groups was central to the outcome of the two races. In addition to Black and other racial and ethnic minority voters, evangelical white Christians, core Republicans, were another key factor.

As noted, Black people accounted for 29% of voters, similar to other statewide exit polls, as available, back to 2008. Sixty-two percent were white, with the rest Hispanic, Asian and other racial or ethnic groups. The exit poll had Ossoff and Warnock winning more than nine in 10 Black voters, and Perdue and Loeffler winning seven in 10 whites.

Evangelical white Christians accounted for 34% of runoff voters, about the same as in November, albeit down from a peak of 39% in the 2014 midterms. The runoff exit poll had 87% in this group for Loeffler and 86% for Perdue, as good as or better than their showing two months ago.

In purely partisan terms, Republicans outnumbered Democrats by 3 points, 39-36%; Republicans were +5 points in the Warnock-Loeffler race in November (39-34%) and +4 points in the previous Ossoff-Perdue race (38-34%).

Independents — 28% of voters in November — also mattered. The Democrats made it to the runoffs by winning independents two months ago, Warnock by 10 points, Ossoff by 8. Independents in the runoff exit poll are very closely divided, a scant +4 for both Ossoff and Warnock.

Women accounted for 54% of voters in the exit poll results, compared with 56% in November. That slightly helped the Republicans, both of whom won men by 8 points while losing women by a similar margin.

Voting method

While it’s called an exit poll, the survey included interviews with early and absentee voters, and for good reason — their votes differed substantially.

The exit poll estimated that 28% of runoff voters cast their ballots in person on election day — up from 20% in November, and a help to the Republicans, since both won 64% of those voters. But Warnock and Ossoff countered with about two-thirds of voters who mailed their ballots in — 68% for Ossoff, up from 62% in November. And both races were tied among early in-person voters, again an improvement for Ossoff.

Georgia regions

Voters in the populous Atlanta suburbs accounted for 26% of the turnout, compared with 28% in November. They voted for Warnock over Loeffler and Ossoff over Perdue by 55-45% in both cases — similar for Warnock from November, better for Ossoff.

The city of Atlanta, a Democratic stronghold, was home to 21% of runoff voters, again about the same as November. North Georgia had about as many voters, 20%, and was almost as strong for the Republicans as Atlanta was for the Democrats.

Georgia’s suburbs overall — including but also beyond Atlanta — were another important battleground. A huge group, suburban voters accounted for slightly more than six in 10 voters and were closely divided — +4 for the Republicans — in both races. Of the rest, the rural vote was 68% for Loeffler and Perdue alike — but the larger urban vote went two-thirds for the Democrats.

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