After years of trying and coming up short, can Democrats finally achieve their goal of turning Georgia blue?
Georgia has been a reliably Republican state in presidential politics for decades now. Since 1984, only one Democratic presidential candidate has carried the Peach State: Bill Clinton in 1992. Since then, Democrats have never made a serious play for the state’s electoral votes. But that is not the case this year.
Democrats have long set their sights on Georgia but have come up short cycle after cycle. In 2010, former Gov. Roy Barnes attempted to make a comeback but lost to Republican Nathan Deal. In 2014, they nominated two candidates from prominent political families: Jason Carter, the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, was nominated for Governor. Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, ran for U.S. Senate. Though they were both highly touted candidates, they could not overcome the brutal national environment for Democrats that year.
In 2016, Donald Trump won Georgia by about 5 percentage points — the narrowest Republican presidential victory in Georgia since Bob Dole’s 1.2% margin in 1996. Though he won the state, there were signs of a shift happening in two suburban Atlanta counties. Cobb County, which is located northwest of Atlanta, had voted Republican for President by double digits in every election since 1980. But Hillary Clinton became the first Democrat to win the county since Jimmy Carter in 1976. Gwinnett County, which is about 40 miles east of Cobb, also flipped to Hillary Clinton after being solidly Republican for decades. The trends in these two counties indicate that a suburban shift was developing prior to Trump’s presidency. Across the country, we have seen suburban areas become more educated and diverse. We have also seen suburban women grow wary of the direction of the Republican Party under Trump’s leadership.
The 2018 Governor race was one of the most high-profile races in the country that year. This election saw Secretary of State Brian Kemp (R) face off against House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams (D) in perhaps the most contentious and controversial governor race in modern Georgia history. From accusations of voter suppression to hacking, it was one of the ugliest campaigns that the state had ever seen. Kemp emerged victorious by a narrow 1.4%, though Abrams made huge gains in the Atlanta suburbs. She got 54% of the vote in Cobb County and 57% in Gwinnett, both of which voted Republican for Governor by double digits just four years earlier. However, it was not enough to overcome Kemp’s strength in rural Georgia. He outperformed Trump in some of the state’s reddest counties.
Democrats think 2020 is the year that Georgia turns blue. They have reasons to be optimistic. Poll after poll shows President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden within the margin of error. All three of the major election handicappers (Cook Political Report, Sabato’s Crystal Ball and Inside Elections) rate the state as a tossup. Georgia also has two competitive Senate races on the ballot, and both Republican incumbents are locked in tight races.
President Trump and his allies are aware of the state’s competitiveness. He has made several campaign stops in the state, including one to court Black voters and another to hold a rally in Macon. In September, Vice President Mike Pence traveled to the state to hold a religious roundtable. The President’s oldest daughter, Ivanka, campaigned with Republican Sen. David Perdue. His two oldest sons have also campaigned in the state — Donald Trump, Jr. headlined a campaign event in Cobb County and is set to return to the state on Friday. Eric Trump also spoke at a rally for Evangelicals. Several Democratic heavyweights also have Georgia on their mind. Dr. Jill Biden, the wife of the Democratic presidential nominee, visited the state on the first day of early voting. Vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris is slated to visit the state on Friday. And Former President Barack Obama is being featured in advertisements for a Democratic Senate candidate. But it remains unclear if Biden himself plans to campaign in the state as the election nears.
Both campaigns have also flooded the airwaves with campaign advertisements. Biden is slated to remain on television in Georgia until the election. He is airing ads talking about his childhood and his achievements as Vice President, and President Trump’s campaign is airing ads saying that his Democratic opponent has no real plan to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.
Another big reason why Georgia could be a problem for the President: his approval rating. A recent poll from Quinnipiac University found 53% of Georgians disapproving of his job as President, with 45% approving. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found 50% disapproving of his job as President, while 48% approved. SurveyUSA found 43% viewing the President in a favorable light and 46% viewing him unfavorably. And the New York Times found 47% viewing him favorably and 48% viewing him unfavorably. The fact that his approval rating in Georgia is not above water is not an encouraging sign for his chances in the state.
If Biden wants to flip Georgia, it will require assembling a diverse coalition that includes suburban whites, particularly women, who have soured on Trump. It will also require shattering turnout records in minority communities. If President Trump wants to keep Georgia in the Republican column, he must energize his base of rural white voters, and he needs to peel off some Black voters, particularly Black men.
Georgia is at the cusp of the presidential battleground states. It is a state that has been reliably Republican for decades, but the trends in diversifying suburban counties, as well as President Trump’s middling approval ratings, have put the state on the map. With 16 electoral votes and two U.S. Senate seats up for grabs, Georgia has never been catapulted onto the national scene like this before. This is easily the most exciting and chaotic election year in Georgia history.