In this edition: What to watch in Georgia, what to watch on Wednesday, and why people stopped paying attention to the many Senate runoff polls.

I got this far without making a “peach” pun, so I'm not starting now. This is The Trailer.

HAMPTON, Ga. – Bobbi Johnson knew she had to get to Georgia. Last week, she brought her two youngest children with her from Detroit to knock on doors with the New South PAC, one of the many liberal groups organizing here.

“Are you going to take three people with you?” Johnson, 53, asked one voter in this Atlanta suburb, raising her voice to cover the social distance between them. “Because you're making history right now. This is going to change history.”

By Saturday, when Johnson knocked on that door, there weren’t many voters left to win. According to the tracking app she was using, most people had voted early. At some doors, literature from BlackPAC, another liberal group plunged into Georgia, had been freshly dropped off. 

By New Year’s Eve, when in-person early voting ended, nearly 3.1 million ballots had been cast. By Tuesday morning, Georgia had already seen the highest raw vote for a runoff in the state's history. More than $440 million has been spent by candidates and third-party groups since November to make this happen.

This is not the runoff scenario both parties were used to. Republicans tend to romp in runoffs here, for reasons Democrats know well: Black voters, in Atlanta and in rural areas, have been less likely to turn out. But the tag-team Senate campaigns have overwhelmed the state. The usual shaming about out-of-state money and canvassers driving with Florida plates has been muted; there are San Francisco Democrats canvassing for Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, and there are Republicans fresh off the rest of the 2020 Senate campaigns turning out votes for former senator David Perdue and Sen. Kelly Loeffler.

“Just remember, this is not just about how many doors you knock on,” Ossoff told a mix of in-state and out-of-state volunteers at a canvass launch this weekend in Stone Mountain, another Atlanta suburb. “It's about the quality of the conversations that you have, let people feel your heart, let people feel the spirit of this campaign, the spirit of this state at this moment, this historic moment for Georgia.”

Still, most Georgians who planned to vote have already voted. And despite that, it’s possible there’s no true clarity on the results tonight, as there wasn’t on the night of Nov. 3. Here’s what to know as the final election of the cycle comes to a close.

Republicans need big Election Day turnout. At the moment, they’re behind, just as they were on Nov. 3. Two months of table-banging by the president has hurt Republicans in several ways, and it has hardened conservative skepticism about absentee voting. 

At the same time, Democrats found new voters after the November race. Around 102,000 early votes were cast by people who skipped the general election. According to the data firm TargetSmart, 40 percent of them were Black. That’s higher than the share of Black votes in most Georgia presidential elections, and higher than it tracked in the early vote last year.

Republicans are hunting for new voters, too, but they don’t need them. While they believe they are trailing in both races, pushing turnout to 4 million and winning the Election Day vote by around a 2-1 margin would put them in a position to win. Lower turnout — something like 750,000 votes today, instead of 900,000, and Republicans would expect to lose.

“I guess we have to get over a million votes tomorrow, right, Kelly?” said President Trump during his rally in Dalton last night. “Over a million. All right. That’s a lot of votes, Kelly, but we’ll do it.” Unlike much of what he said onstage, that was true.

Trump voters have been tougher to turn out. Why was Trump in Dalton, anyway? Why was he in Valdosta last month? Both cities are far closer to state lines (Tennessee and Florida, respectively) than they are to the Atlanta metro area. And in November, the metro counties out-voted the rest of Georgia for the first time.

That’s why Trump was elsewhere, and why President-elect Joe Biden’s two Georgia trips took him to the state’s biggest city. Turnout has been higher in Democratic districts than in the GOP’s strongholds.

Republican anger at the Nov. 3 results has made many of their voters more intent on waiting until Election Day to vote, hence the party’s optimism. And there is little evidence that voters are following the boycott of Lin Wood, the Georgia attorney who has shared increasingly deranged conspiracy theories about the election.

Still, in conversations over the race’s final days, supporters of Perdue and Loeffler said they don’t believe the Nov. 3 results and know people who had become cynical because of them. Gary Clifford, 66, said that it was “hard to say” who’d be sworn in, and that he had been volunteering to encourage reluctant fellow Republicans to vote in the Senate race anyway. 

“I've had several of my friends tell me they’re depressed and they don’t think it's going to be worth the effort,” Clifford said. “I try to tell them, if we don't at least make them cheat again, they'll take it without any resistance.” 

If Republicans came back to vote, one place to watch will be Cherokee County, a conservative stronghold north of Atlanta. When early voting ended, turnout was at just 55 percent of the Nov. 3 total; by comparison, Atlanta’s Fulton County hit 72 percent of that total. A gap like that, if repeated in other conservative counties, would be impossible for the Republicans to overcome.

We won’t get every vote counted tonight, and people will be paranoid about it. When the TV-centric president talks about Nov. 3, he reminds people that he was “up big” at the beginning of the night. He isn't wrong. In Georgia, rural counties tend to report their totals first, and in-person vote totals are released before absentee totals. Democrats are not holding events in Atlanta tonight, not because they think they’ll lose, but because they expect the count to continue for a few days.

“We need to win by a comfortable margin, because funny things go on,” Warnock told voters at one of his final pre-vote rallies, in Riverdale.

The numbers from deep-red counties will still tell us plenty, and so will the numbers from Democratic-trending suburbs. Take Floyd County, one of the more populous counties in the 14th Congressional District that Trump campaigned in yesterday. In November, it cast 41,341 votes for president, with Trump winning 28,906 of them, while Biden got 11,917 and Libertarian candidate Jo Jorgenson got 518 votes. Nearly every voter also cast a ballot in the Senate race: Perdue got 28,752 votes, Ossoff got 11,480 votes, and the Libertarian nominee got 1,056 votes.

Perdue wouldn’t have been forced into a runoff had he won around 1 in 9 votes cast for the Libertarian, and a hopeful Republican theory going into today was that conservative protest-voters, whether they went for Libertarians or for Biden, would come back to the GOP when the Senate was on the line. The Loeffler and Perdue campaigns tried to capitalize on that thinking, warning voters that Democrats would have no need to compromise with Republicans if they won the Senate races. 

Was that argument complicated by the president saying his own race was stolen and demanding loyalty from Republicans? That possibility worries strategists, but not so many Republican voters. They were cheered when Loeffler and Perdue announced that they’d contest the results of the presidential election, a decision that alienates Biden voters but revs up Republicans.

Mary Atkins, a 62-year poll watcher, had lost her own race for local office by a handful of votes – with absentee ballots making the difference. Asked why the race seemed to be so close, she said that she did not believe it. 

“I think they’re just saying that to scare everybody, because Perdue and Loeffler are going to be in there when this is over,” Atkins said. “This is a red state.” 

Reading list

“Trump sabotaging GOP on his way out of office with push to overturn election,” by Philip Rucker, Ashley Parker, Josh Dawsey and Seung Min Kim

Republican jitters about a plan many are too nervous to oppose.

The great expectations for a vice president who hasn't said what he'll do.

“Democrats, Republicans race to finish in Ga. as Trump casts shadow over Senate runoffs,” by Cleve R. Wootson Jr., Michael Scherer, David Weigel and Reis Thebault

Parting shots from the Georgia runoffs.

Inside the “wild protest” to overturn the election.

How a GOP operator stayed behind the scenes.

A target of election conspiracy theories pushes back.

Autogolpe watch

MILNER, Ga. ― On Monday afternoon, Vice President Pence fulfilled one of the office's constitutional roles: being outshined by the president. Hundreds, not thousands, of Republicans packed into Rock Springs Church for Pence's speech, parking was readily available, and there was no winding line to get in, like the one President Trump would get at his evening rally.

But as the audience reminded Pence, he was the man of the moment. Halfway into his remarks, there were shouts of “January 6” and “do your job." A chant of “stop the steal” only quieted when Pence began to tell a personal story about coming to Jesus Christ. 

"We need you to do the right thing January 6!" shouted Patty Smith, 60.  

“We’ll have our day in Congress. We’ll hear the objections. We’ll hear the evidence," Pence said, to loud applause. "But tomorrow is Georgia’s day.” 

How did Wednesday become Pence's day? Supporters of the president have been campaigning for weeks to overturn the Nov. 3 election, beseeching courts and Republican-run state legislatures to reverse President-elect Joe Biden's victory. Two months ago, Trump personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani said that “courts” decide elections; in Georgia, Trump supporters seemed to embrace the idea that Pence decides them.

"I'm not an expert on the Constitution, but I have heard that he can stop it," Smith said in an interview, referring to the certification of Biden's win.

"Pence needs to count the correct electors," said James Johnson, 49, referring to Trump supporters who met on Dec. 14 to insist that they represented “competing" slates that could deliver their states' votes to Trump. 

Those electors have no legal authority whatsoever, and Pence has no authority to reject electoral votes. Republicans are not only divided on whether to challenge the results on Wednesday: They don't agree on what the challenge could achieve. 

Start with the protest of the vote certification on Wednesday. It is already headed toward failure, with House Democrats and some House Republicans opposed to it, and enough Senate Republicans planning to vote no that the challenge can't succeed there. Some Republicans have said that they'll challenge the results because they think the election can be overturned; some, like Rep. Mike Garcia (Calif.), have said they're protesting simply to bring about “assured security” in elections. 

“The vote on 6 January is not about Trump versus Biden,” Garcia wrote yesterday. 

That might come as a surprise to conservatives who honestly believe that protesting the count can prevent a Biden win. Some have become freelance constitutional scholars, which is where Pence comes in. While the rules of the certification ceremony don't give Pence the power to reject electors, some Trump supporters argue that it does, usually citing precedents that don't apply here — like Richard Nixon accepting John F. Kennedy's victory in Hawaii after a recount showed that Kennedy had won the state, and a pro-Nixon state certification was inaccurate.

“He doesn't have to grant the electors to Trump,” said Charlie Kirk, the president of Turning Point USA and a White House ally, on his online show Monday. “All Pence has to do is reject electors from states that are compromised. Some people say that's not constitutional. Then try it. Make them sue, and get the Supreme Court into action, because we have precedent that a vice president can reject state electors.” Kirk's plan was for Pence to reject enough electors that neither Biden nor Trump had 270 votes, forcing the election to the House, where Republicans would be expected to elect Trump. (Each state delegation gets a single vote, and because the GOP minority controls more state delegations than Democrats.)

Trump's nearly win-less legal team has embraced a version of this theory. “What Mike Pence could do, and what he should do, in fact, is to direct a question back to the state legislatures when there are two competing slates of delegates from these six states," said Trump attorney Jenna Ellis on a conservative talk show this week. “That's actually returning the authority to the constitutionally vested entity and just simply directing that question, I think, would then require a response from these very timid, to put it lightly, state legislators that haven't been willing to act, and it would in fact then give a very clean outcome to this election.”

Pence has not signaled that he'd do that, or do anything, hence his odd description of Republicans having their “day in Congress” to process evidence. Republicans have not said what evidence they'll produce on Wednesday. If they cribbed from the president's Georgia rally speech, they'd have a lot of fraud accusations that have been rejected and debunked by state elections officers. If they cribbed from pro-Trump lawsuits, they'd argue that valid votes should be disqualified, and the states' results de-certified, because not every change made to election rules this year was approved by the Republican legislatures of the contested states. 

There's a lot of mystery about Wednesday, from what the president will say at a White House rally, to how protesters handle themselves outside the Capitol, to what Republicans will argue when they challenge the states' electors. Any challenge backed by a House member and a senator sparks a mandatory debate. If Republicans contest all seven of the states with “competing slates” — this includes New Mexico, a state that Biden won by 10 points — the debates would stretch for 30 hours. By the end, if Republicans challenged Wisconsin, they'd be fighting over 10 electoral votes long after Biden had cleared 270 votes and secured the presidency. (There was suggestion Tuesday that Republicans might not contest all seven.)

If the day (or days) unfold like that, don't expect the protests to stop. Pence's role in the process ends when the certification does. But Republicans in the five targeted states where they control the legislature — Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — have been pressured for weeks to hold special sessions to de-certify the November vote. In the latter three states, Democrats control the governor's office, and in all of them, the number of Republican legislators on record for overturning the election is far from a majority on the floor. 

But between Wednesday and Jan. 20, all of those legislatures begin their regular sessions, with Republican majorities able to introduce any legislation they want. After “our day in Congress,” get ready for “our day in Atlanta” or “our day in Phoenix.” That could happen with or without Pence, who's at the center of this drama for only the next 48 hours.

Ad watch

Jon Ossoff, “Blood, Sweat, and Tears.” The millennial Senate candidate's runoff campaign has looked a lot like Joe Biden's successful presidential campaign in Georgia, down to the presentation in his TV ads. This is the last in a string of commercials that feature Ossoff only at the end, focusing on small business owners — here, a martial arts instructor — who've struggled during the pandemic and resent that former senator David Perdue made stock trades after a pandemic briefing.

Raphael Warnock, “The Help We Need is Long Overdue.” Warnock and Ossoff have both used shorter, cheaper social media advertising for messaging about what, specifically, a Democratic Senate would be able to pass. This spot tells the reader that “Georgians won't get their long overdue $2,000 relief checks” if Republicans win the runoffs. That's the entire message, and Ossoff has similar spots, in which he talks straight to camera about passing student debt relief and mailing out checks.

Kelly Loeffler, “Firewall to Socialism.” Republicans started the runoff with what they thought was a gift: Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) saying victory in Georgia would help his party “change America.” That's stayed in Republican advertising, mixed in with every comment a well-known liberal makes about the importance of winning Georgia.

American Crossroads, “Defends.” Most of the runoff campaign, on the Republican side, has been about defining Warnock after he got an easy ride in the primary. This ad has been run and removed and run again, over protests by Democrats of how it uses a line from Warnock. The Democrat quoted the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's “God Damn America” sermon, in remarks about what Wright meant; the ad makes it seem like Warnock simply repeated and agreed with the sentiment.

Poll watch

At the risk of understatement, pollsters did not have a great 2020. Public polling was wildly off in some key states, as was the internal polling that candidates pay a premium for. The national polling average was far less accurate than it had been in 2016 — pollsters were just a fraction of a point off in the popular vote that year, and nearly three points off last year. The industry is still sorting out what happened, and wasn't finished by the time Georgia's runoffs began.

The result: Polls of today's races have not driven coverage in Georgia. Not like polls did for last year's races. Georgia was one of the few states where November 2020 polling underestimated Democrats in the presidential race, with the final numbers missing Joe Biden's razor-thin victory. But the same poll averages slightly under-rated the strength of Republican David Perdue and over-rated the support for Democrat Raphael Warnock.

Today's poll averages, like November's, find Ossoff and Warnock narrowly ahead. But nobody's really touting them as a preview of how the election will go, and it's in the interest of both Republicans and Democrats to say the election is close. There have been enough polls to build a trend line, and while the movement's been inside the margin of error, it's found Republicans deteriorating slightly since the runoffs began, from narrow leads for Perdue and Sen. Kelly Loeffler to narrow deficits.

“In Georgia, the numbers were fairly close to the result in November,” said John Couvillon, founder of JMC Analytics and Polling, which released numbers that showed Ossoff and Warnock ahead. “Almost everything has gone right for the Democrats since November 3, and almost everything has gone wrong for the Republicans.”

Most published polling has come from campaigns or PACs, not media outlets. The results have been fairly uniform. At no point has any candidate led by double digits; only a few partisan polls have found any candidate leading outside the margin of error. Republicans see a clear path to victory, but while Warnock's negatives have gone up in the past two months, no poll has found a notable shift in the horse race. 

Countdown

… one day until a joint session of Congress to certify the presidential election
… 15 days until the inauguration