It’s a good thing Mary Norwood has voted for so many Democrats. Because she sure does look like Hillary Clinton right about now.
The biggest setback for Norwood isn’t that she faces a runoff against Kasim Reed in Atlanta’s mayoral race, after winning 46 percent of the vote to his 36 percent in a field of six Tuesday. Her prospects for winning the election outright were always tantalizing — close, but most likely just out of reach.
No, her problem lies in what this result looks like, and the way it came about. Like Clinton in last year’s presidential primaries, Norwood has lost her aura of inevitability. Will she now follow Clinton’s lead and also lose the office she seeks?
The assumption was that Norwood would enter a Dec. 1 runoff having won a healthy plurality with a sizable margin in the general election. The second-place candidate would look like just that: the best of the also-rans, but a distant runner-up to Norwood.
Two late-October opinion polls were notable chiefly for revealing that Reed had surpassed City Council President Lisa Borders; Norwood still had a 20-point margin over him in each poll. With that kind of result Tuesday, there would have been an inevitability about Norwood’s progression from a general election plurality to a runoff victory.
I write this column too soon after Tuesday’s results for a thorough parsing of the numbers. But it’s clear that such an inevitability does not exist.
Here is what we do know. Norwood’s margin over Reed was technically in the single digits, a relatively skinny 9.6 percentage points. The trajectory is more alarming: Her 46 percent was right at what the polls leading up to Tuesday had projected, but Reed’s 36 percent was at least 10 percentage points better than the previous estimates.
Reed may have taken a couple of percentage points from Borders, whose campaign faded in the final weeks, but he mostly appears to have taken the undecided voters.
What does this mean for turnout in the runoff? People who made up their minds at the last minute may not be as likely as more committed supporters to come back to the polls for the runoff. Then again, these may have been black voters who were waiting to see whether Reed or Borders was best-positioned entering Election Day, and who will be motivated to return to the polls in four weeks.
Norwood may have her own turnout problem, thanks to her ill-advised response to her rivals’ attempts to brand her a closet Republican. After playing down the charges at first, insisting that she was “purple” rather than Republican red or Democratic blue, she ultimately released an ad denying GOP links and claiming to have voted for Democrats in the last four presidential elections.
She also, in an interview with Atlanta Progressive News, defended her participation in the state GOP’s 1999 convention by saying, “Just because you did cocaine once doesn’t make you an addict.” (Scroll to the bottom of the linked article to see the quote.)
Look, Republicans within the city limits know that having an R by your name doesn’t do a candidate any favors in Atlanta. They would be happy simply to see a mayor who acted on conservative beliefs, particularly on fiscal matters.
But going out of your way to disavow the party of many of your supporters, and likening attendance at its convention to experimentation with hard drugs? That shows considerably bad political judgment.
Several conservatives and Republican activists with whom I’ve spoken wonder whether right-leaning voters will forgive Norwood, when she could have simply said this was a non-partisan election and that she was focused on the issues.
In any case, Norwood will want to change the subject from partisanship, and that may require her to be more detailed about her plans than she has been to date.
Like I said, the inevitability is gone. The race is on.