Republicans have dominated Georgia presidential elections for a generation, but Democrat Joe Biden’s 2020 bid for the White House has made this Southern GOP stronghold competitive for the first time in nearly 30 years.
While Republican Donald Trump glided to victory in Georgia four years ago, support for Biden has rapidly increased in the weeks before Election Day. The Real Clear Politics polling average shows the candidates statistically tied in the state, and a Quinnipiac University Poll of likely Georgia voters conducted in late September, prior to the president’s COVID-19 diagnosis, found Biden leading Trump by three percentage points, just outside the survey’s margin of error. In the poll, 50 percent of voters said they would support Biden and 47 percent voiced an intention to vote for Trump.
That should set off alarm bells in the Trump campaign, which carried Georgia by a safe five percentage points against Hillary Clinton in 2016.
“I think Trump should be wary of what might happen in Georgia,” said Trey Hood, director of the University of Georgia’s Survey Research Center, which conducted a poll for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in late September showing the race at a dead heat.
A Biden victory in Georgia would complicate Trump’s already narrow path to the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win, cutting the president off from votes that past Republicans have been able to secure without investing substantial campaign resources. Georgia is part of America’s deep South, which has voted Republican in recent years. But as the South changes, the Republican grip on the region could be loosening.
Biden’s rise in the state is likely a result of changing demographics, particularly within Atlanta – Georgia’s largest city – which has undergone a population boom in recent years. The percentage of the state’s older white population has been on a steady decline, and has been replaced by a younger populace with fewer white residents who are increasingly voting Democratic. Many of those new voters are transplants from other states who have moved to Atlanta in recent years.
“What in essence is happening here is, Republicans are dying, and their grandchildren are voting Democratic,” said Charles S. Bullock, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia. “Wherever you look, you see Democrats rebounding. They haven’t reached majority status yet, but the numbers are moving in that direction.”
The tightest combat will occur in towns surrounding the Atlanta metropolitan area, a massive region that sprawls for nearly 22,000 square kilometres (8494 quake miles) and is home to more than 6 million people. The area has more than earned its nickname: “The Capital of the South.”
“Atlanta dominates other urban areas. It’s just huge. The real battle is in the ring of suburban counties around Atlanta,” said Hood. “It’s a turnout battle. There are very few people left to persuade. It’s who can get their forces to the polls.”
Georgia’s new battleground status has spurned both campaigns – and their allies – to action.
Prior to his COVID-19 diagnosis, Trump visited Georgia multiple times to campaign, as has his running mate, Mike Pence. The campaign has paid for television ads to air in the state throughout the month of September. They have had help from Super PACs like America First Action, a pro-Trump group, which plans to spend $2.8m to run a televised ad attacking Biden as “weak,” starting in October.
Focus on Black voters
Biden in September unveiled a multi-million advertisement campaign particularly aimed at increasing turnout of Black voters. The advertisement touts his running mate, Kamala Harris, whose father was a Black immigrant from Jamaica.
Both campaigns have also made ambitious efforts to woo Black voters in Georgia, who comprise more than 30 percent of the state’s population.
In 2019, Trump launched a “Black Voices for Trump” initiative with a speech in Atlanta. In September, he returned to Atlanta to announce what he calls a “Platinum Plan” for Black Americans, which includes proposals to support Black-owned businesses, to label the Ku Klux Klan as a terrorist group and to recognize Juneteenth – a day that celebrates when the last Black slaves learned of their emancipation – as a national holiday. At the Republican National Convention in August, the party featured two Black policymakers from Georgia to make the case for the president.
Despite these efforts, recent polling suggests Biden will dominate among Black voters.
“I’m not seeing any movements in terms of African American voters toward Trump,” said Hood.
Biden has been relying on Black surrogates like Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost her bid for governor in 2018. Her advocacy group, Fair Fight Georgia, has registered hundreds of thousands of voters. A vast majority of Black voters will likely support Biden in 2020, but his level of success will hinge on their levels of turnout, something Clinton failed to produce four years earlier. The number of Black people who voted in 2016 was far less than in 2012, when Barack Obama won re-election.
“In Georgia, and in the Deep South in general, the heart and soul of the Democratic Party coalition is Black voters,” said J. Miles Coleman, an election analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “If the Democrats want the Black vote, it’s good to get a big vote out of Atlanta, but Democrats also have to pay attention to other areas of the state as well. If Biden can get the type of Black turnout in the rural areas that Obama was able to get, that would help in a very close race.”
Democrats have been emboldened by rising numbers of support in recent non-presidential elections, which could point to a blue future for this long-red state. In 2018, Democrats flipped several state House and Senate seats that had long been held by Republicans. During Abrams’s 2018 bid for governor, she came within 55,000 votes of carrying Georgia, closer than any Democrat in years. And this year, Georgia has two Senate seats up for re-election – the only state to do so this election cycle – which could further increase turnout at the ballot box.
“If Biden wins Georgia–or if he’s even within a few points – he’s probably already over 270 Electoral votes,” said Coleman. “For Biden, winning Georgia would almost be like the icing on the cake.”