ATLANTA -- The three-way race for U.S. Senate has all the makings of a tight contest headed for a runoff.
With heavy turnout and hundreds of thousands of paper absentee ballots to scan, the final tally may not be known until late Wednesday.
In the survey released Monday, Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss had support from 48 percent of the respondents to Democrat Jim Martin’s 43 and Libertarian Allen Buckley’s 2 percent, with 7 percent still undecided. Most of the undecided were black, a group that has been leaning heavily toward Democrats this year.
The survey was conducted by telephone Sunday among 512 likely voters, giving it a 4 percent margin of error.
If the poll’s results hold up, Martin and Chambliss would be headed toward a runoff in four weeks since no one garnered more than 50 percent of the vote.
Pollster Matt Towery, who conducted the survey through his company InsiderAdvantage, said turnout by black voters will determine the outcome.
“I don’t see any way Martin wins it straight up, but if the African-American vote is as robust as I believe it’s going to be, then you’ll see a runoff,” Towery said.
One black voter for Martin said she was in his corner because she likes his stance on behalf of the middle class.
“It’s usually been that a lot of people that vote Republican are making over $225,000 a year,” said Bukekia Crawford of Roswell. “A lot of the Democrats are identified more with the middle-class income.”
Economics has been the main subject of a flurry of negative ads during the final weeks.
However, for Frances DeWitt of Savannah, the ads didn’t change her impression of Chambliss or her vote for him.
“I have known him for a long time (through community and church groups), and have watched him and just trust him,” she said.
On the other hand, Martin’s ads attacking Chambliss for supporting a national sales tax backfired with voter Don Frisbee of Thomaston because they didn’t mention the senator’s plan to eliminate income taxes at the same time.
“The one thing that really soured me about Martin was when he started running ads about how Chambliss wants to add a 23-percent sales tax, not bringing into consideration that that was part of his backing of the Fair Tax,” Frisbee said. “Telling a half-truth is the same as telling a lie, as far as I’m concerned.”
But Martin picked up the vote of Kelly Woodard of East Atlanta because of a Chambliss attack ad.
“He had this one ad that I thought was horrific, which actually kind of altered my vote toward Martin,” she said. “That was far-fetched.”
Buckley’s appeal was to people like Gabrielle Morford of Atlanta who were turned off by Chambliss and Martin.
“I don’t really think the Democratic or the Republican parties gave us a really good candidate to chose from,” she said. “So I wanted to support a third party. To me, Saxby Chambliss and Jim Martin are pretty much equally a crook.”
The campaign started with most observers expecting Chambliss to win with little trouble as a conservative incumbent in a reliably Republican state. Polls showed him comfortably ahead until the financial crisis captured voters’ attention about four weeks ago, and his lead quickly eroded.
Until then, national Democrats had put few resources toward Martin’s behalf. After Chambliss voted for the $700 billion financial-services industry bailout, Democrats from across the country and the national party itself pumped money in, and the number of ads on the air increased.
Martin attributed his improved fortunes to his farsightedness.
“Our message has been the same since the very beginning of this campaign,” he said. “It just happens to have turned out that events in Washington over the last couple of months have underscored the importance of what I was talking about.”