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State of Change: Recasting the Electorate in the Peach State

On November 6, 2018, the nation watched Stacey Abrams LAW ’99 narrowly lose to incumbent Brian Kemp in the Georgia gubernatorial election. Her defeat marked the state’s closest governor’s race since 1966.

Abrams made history as the first Black woman in the nation to be selected as the gubernatorial nominee by a major party. Kemp’s tight 1.4 percent victory not only propelled Abrams to national spotlight, but also showcased an increasingly liberal vote begging to crack the surface of a historically Republican stronghold. 

Greg Bluestein, political reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC),  remembers Abrams’ rise from a “lesser known state lawmaker” to a contender for Joe Biden’s 2020 vice presidential pick. 

“It was really fascinating…. I went from going to press conferences where I was the only reporter there to events where there were hundreds of reporters, and The New York Times was using her name in national headlines,” Bluestein said in an interview with The Politic. 

For Bluestein, a Georgia native who has been covering Georgia politics at AJC for over eight years, the 2018 gubernatorial election was a wakeup call: From that moment forward, Georgia politics became anything but predictable. 

Bluestein has argued that Abrams’ narrow loss was an inflection point for Georgia politics—away from steadfast Republicanism and toward the “purple.” In the upcoming election, the Peach State is receiving an unprecedented level of media attention. As of Saturday, October 10, FiveThirtyEight polls show Democratic nominee Joe Biden beating President Trump in Georgia by 0.7 points: 47.4 percent to 46.7 percent. 

Still, while external polls show Biden and Trump neck-in-neck, the reality on the ground makes it hard for many to believe that Georgia might actually swing blue. 

***

Bentley Long ’22 grew up 327 miles away from the AJC newsroom in St. Simons, GA.  Located in Glynn County, this small coastal town is a popular destination for tourists from all over the state. 

In February 2020, a firestorm erupted in Glynn County when Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was shot to death by two white men while on a routine jog. Prior to Arbery’s murder, most people probably wouldn’t have been able to point out rural, conservative Glynn County on a map.

Long vividly recalls the fall of his junior year at Glynn Academy, a public high school in Brunswick, GA where he “saw a lot of love” for Donald Trump.  In 2016, Glynn County voted overwhelmingly for Trump, who received 62.47 percent of the vote.

“It was mostly for the shock factor: You wore the red hat and had a MAGA flag hanging from your truck—or perhaps a MAGA chair at the beach,” Long said in an interview with The Politic, describing conservatives’ infatuation with the then-political outsider.

Despite the popular characterization of Trump’s base as a blue-collar, working class coalition, Long explained that in his community, it was mainly the affluent who voted for Trump. 

“The more Republican you are, the more wealthy you are, the more cultural clout you have,” Long explained. “It is an odd contrast because simultaneously, these people tend to hate big corporate interests, but they have a strong idolization of the politicians who run those corporate interests.” 

Despite national polls indicating that Georgia will lean blue in the upcoming presidential election, Long, informed by his high school experience, “does not believe Georgia will vote Democrat in the presidential election.” 

Back in Atlanta, Professor Alan Abramowitz, the Alben W. Barkley Professor of Political Science at Emory University, has more faith. Abramowitz specializes in elections, voting behavior and public opinion, and election forecasting modeling. 

“This year, we’re expecting Georgia to be very competitive in the presidential and Senate elections,” Abramowitz said in an interview with The Politic.

“If you look at small town and rural Georgia, if anything, it has gotten more Republican…except where there are large Black populations,” Abramowitz said. 

However, the catalyst for Georgia’s shift in politics can be explained by changing demographic trends in the state, particularly in Atlanta. Abramowitz detailed how “Metro Atlanta is growing much faster than the rest of the state, and the white population is not growing much at all. The growth in population is coming almost entirely from non-whites,” he continued. “Over time, this is contributing to the gradual erosion of the Republican advantage in elections.”

According to the Metro Atlanta Chamber, the Atlanta Metropolitan Statistical Area is the ninth largest metro area in the nation, and one of the fastest-growing. From 2010 to 2019, it experienced an increase in population of approximately 734,000 people—the fourth-highest growth rate in the nation. Today, Metro Atlanta has a population of over six million. 

As Abramowitz indicated, Atlanta is also a rapidly diversifying city. From 2018 to 2025, estimates from the Georgia Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget show a statewide Compound Annual Growth Rate for the white population of 1.11 percent, while the city’s Black, Hispanic and other non-white populations are growing at rates of 1.65 percent, 2.66 percent, and 2.59 percent, respectively. 

This trend is mirrored in other urban areas outside of Atlanta: cities like Savannah, Augusta, Columbus, and Macon are also beginning to trend Democratic, Abramowitz explained. But in an almost reactionary response, historically red rural Georgia is becoming more conservative.

“The bottom line of the trend [is that] red counties are getting redder. The problem for Republicans is that there are not many more votes in rural counties for Republicans to win,” said Bluestein.

After spending the past few months travelling all over the Peach State to cover the election, Bluestein believes that Democrats will win the Atlanta suburbs. However, he noted that the size of the predicted blue victory margin will be crucial because, as Bluestein explained, “three points in an Atlanta suburb is exponentially different than three points in rural counties.” 

“The super competitive suburbs of Atlanta have been Republican forever until now,” he said. “That is where the battle will be played out.”

***

Emily, a college student in Georgia and former field organizer for the Georgia GOP, emphasized that the Georgia Republican Party has had to transform its strategy in response to the shifting electorate. 

“There was this feeling that the GOP had given up in Atlanta, but [we] have a big presence in Buckhead, where the Georgia GOP headquarters are and most of the fundraising within Georgia takes place,” Emily said in an interview with The Politic.  

Emily detailed that losing former Republican strongholds in Metro Atlanta, especially wealthy areas like Buckhead, has been very worrisome for the Georgia GOP. 

“You have very affluent whites who are very Republican and poor whites who are very Republican,” Abramowitz explained. According to Abramowitz, high-income Republicans vote Republican for low taxes and low government spending. In contrast, white low-income voters usually support social security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

“There is a potential problem to Republicans if they appear very hostile to these programs. Republicans have an ongoing effort to overturn the Affordable Care Act, which would actually be very harmful to their own supporters,” Abramowitz explained, puzzled by this dissonance. “But [white low-income voters] do not seem to be aware of that or care much about it to dislodge their preferences.”

“A lot of metro congressional districts that have been safely red before are not anymore and a lot of money, resources and time are being put into these districts,” Emily said. “The big push is for Congressional District 6…. The GOP views this as their last hope for the Atlanta Metro area.”

Unlike the Biden campaign, the GOP has spent a vast amount of resources in Georgia. 

“Georgia is an absolutely must-win state for Trump, while for Biden, it is the icing on the cake,” Abramowitz explained. “Biden doesn’t need to win Georgia. If Biden wins Georgia, he almost certainly is winning other swing states.”

According to Bluestein, “In 2016, Trump didn’t visit Georgia in the homestretch. Georgia was a piggy bank for fundraisers, so they didn’t need to bother to spend their time [there].” 

But with the Democratic Party now gaining traction in Georgia’s metropolitan areas, “the campaigns are vigorously competing here,” Bluestein said. “Trump was here a few days ago, Pence was here, and there will be more visits in the next few weeks.” 

Recently, Republican lawmakers have depended heavily on another strategy to maximize support for Trump.

“Republicans have this problem in shoring up a shrinking base. So, what do you do?” asked Abramowitz. 

“You try to maximize support in that base, and then you have to think of ways to suppress turnout in other parts of the state, or at least make it harder to vote.”

***

Even as polls indicate that Georgia races are tightening, there is still widespread fear of voter suppression influencing election outcomes. When AJC uncovered that thousands of voters in the 2018 gubernatorial election were purged from the database overseen by then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp—who was running in the same election—Georgians suspected corruption.

Alex, a student working with the Georgia Democratic Party, highlighted the urgency of combating voter suppression, especially in a state plagued by the legacy of racist grandfather clauses—laws which required voters to be descendants of Americans who could vote before the the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified. 

“Southwestern Georgia, which is majority minority and poor…used to vote Democrat,” said Alex. “[But] many of them have been affected by the voter suppression instituted by Brian Kemp and [Brad] Raffisberger.” Now, this region consistently votes red and is one of the “driving forces keeping southern Georgia conservative.”

Alex noted that from an organizer’s perspective, the most significant difference between the 2016 presidential election and that of this year is an increase in resources and investment. They alluded to a motto often used by the Georgia Democratic Party: “Georgia has been blue, but it has not been given the resources to get there.” 

Now, the Democratic Party of Georgia has its highest number of staff in the state’s history and has received investments from the Biden campaign and external sources like Mike Bloomberg. 

Georgia Democrats are prioritizing contacting voters of color and low-income voters and providing them with the necessary information they need to vote, Alex noted. They added that “candidates are going directly into low-income neighborhoods, as well as connecting with community leaders.”

Long has also noticed a decisive shift within the Republican Party.

“[In the] 2o16 election, most Republican support for President Trump, outside of a smaller fanbase, was because he was Republican, or because of a strong dislike of Hillary Clinton,” Long said.

Now, Long explains that a vote for “Trump is a vote for Trump”—rather than voting against the opposition, Republicans are actively voting for the president. Long noted how distrust in the media has driven support for President Trump, leading to further polarization. “Now, if you don’t get your news from Fox News…it’s fake, and if they say something negative on Fox News, it’s fake.” 

“[This] media bubble doesn’t coincide with reality,” Long explained. “There are whole towns and churches and school districts where a majority of people only get their news from one source that reaffirms the current administration. They are only exposed to that—only making them more right.” 

Emily remembers a time in her GOP field organizing days when an older woman complained to her about Fox News at a GOP event. To Emily’s surprise, the lady quipped that “[Fox is] just too liberal; I prefer to watch One America News.” 

“They are really just nitpicking their news,” Emily said. “They just want to see the good and will not look at the bad, all they want to do is excuse [Trump’s] behavior and move on.” 

She highlighted that this was a common encounter. Even if internal party data projects that the GOP will lose Georgia by an estimated one-point margin, Georgia Republicans will not believe it. 

On the ground, Georgia still does not feel like a swing state. 

***

The core of Georgia’s turbulent politics can be attributed to the polarization of hotly contested social problems, some of which are the sole determining factor for single-issue voters, leaving little room for Democrats to seize undecided votes. 

Abramowitz explained that these cultural issues often directly correlate to voters’ religious beliefs, leading to increased support for President Trump, particularly from less-educated white voters.

“A significant percentage of the [Georgia] population is white evangelicals—some of the strongest supporters of  Trump,” Abramowitz said. “They feel threatened: They feel like their values are being threatened. They are particularly concerned about abortion.

To Long, the Republican Party’s large base in Georgia is due to its victories on the issues of gun control and abortion. 

“If you fundamentally believe that abortion is murder, your morals will not allow you to vote for anyone who says it’s okay that abortion is okay,” Long said. 

Because of these extreme viewpoints, he believes that there is a large base of Georgia voters, predominately comprised of evangelicals, who will never budge on abortion, and therefore will never budge from their side of the political aisle. 

However, Long believes that gun control may be a more approachable issue for Democrats, though they have failed to beat Republican marketing thus far. 

“Republicans have made it so that in the public conscience of the South…any law regarding guns is labeled as control,” Long explained. “That wording—‘control’—is huge in the Republican ideology. Any reference to gun legislation is a direct opposition to the Second Amendment.”

From this, Long credits Republicans in “winning the battle in understanding how people’s minds work.”

“The Republicans are the best psychologists in America,” he continued. “This is why they brand conception as the beginning of life and any type of gun control as the antithesis of the Second Amendment.”

For Emily, however, the Republican reliance on these social issues is creating a divide within the Republican Party, particularly between younger and older generations. 

 “You have the Christian right, they are a huge portion of the Republican Party,” but now, there are more “young Republicans who care about the LGBTQ+ community, that care about racial equality and climate change, that are pro-choice, but they still hold small government beliefs,” Emily said. 

These are precisely the voters the Biden campaign is targeting in a concerted effort to swing Georgia blue. 

And this is why Emily is concerned about the GOP’s future. She knows that the Republican Party needs to rebrand and demonstrate that they care about issues important to younger voters. However, the question remains if the party can, or will.

“There are things that should not be a partisan issue: The Republican response [to police brutality] should not be that ‘blue lives matter.’ The response should be: ‘We need to talk about this.’” 

Such frustrating responses have made it extremely hard for Emily to continue working with the GOP—especially in the aftermath of the injustices against Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others—even as she finds Republican principles like “small government and personal freedom” important.

Emily believes that the Republican Party is at a critical point in its existence. 

“Who do they want to represent the Republican Party? What do they want to be associated with?” Emily asked. “With Trump, you have seen the rise of candidates like Marjorie Taylor Greene or even Brian Kemp: Is this going to be their legacy? Or will they move back in the opposite direction?”

On the other side of the aisle, Georgia’s Democrats are optimistic. Alex believes that Georgia will swing blue by 2028, if not sooner. 

“Stacey Abrams showed that you can win Georgia in a way that has not been tried before,” they argued. “Historically, the party continually ran white moderates as if they were going to win by rebuilding the Democratic Party of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s in the South.”  

But as calls for gender and racial equality intensify, the Democratic Party is trying to keep up. The outcome of the 2020 general election will prove whether or not it is capable of doing so.