Why you should care
Because Georgia has 16 electoral votes — and a history of backing Republicans.
Growing up in Georgia, you learn to second guess what you think you see in the sweaty heat of summer. Along the foothills of Appalachia, it’s easy to mistake fool’s gold for the real thing. It’s true in politics too.
Those lessons come to mind when I remember witnessing the Democratic National Convention this summer. The delegation from Georgia was awarded five speaking slots — perhaps not surprising given it’s the eighth most populous state, but certainly disproportionate to the actual competitiveness of a state that hasn’t awarded its electoral votes to a Democrat since Bill Clinton back in 1992.
The last time Georgia went blue was 1992.
The last time Arizona went blue was 1996. https://t.co/mZyqdy3YlQ
— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) August 9, 2016
On stage, the Democrats hardly played like underdogs. Jason Carter, the grandson of Jimmy (who himself tried to roll liberals’ Sisyphean hopes up the hill as their candidate for governor two years before) began his speech with greetings from the “battleground state” of Georgia. Stacey Abrams, the state house minority leader, has long used pie charts and a voter registration project to boost her claims of a blue future. The polls have run close, and headlines from The New York Times, The Washington Post and Politico have followed suit in suggesting its battleground status. From Hillary Clinton’s Brooklyn headquarters have come the requisite head nods — adding staff, sending Barack Obama and Joe Biden to Atlanta fundraisers — suggesting they, at least publicly, want you to believe the state is in play.
All of which leads me to say just one thing: Bless your heart, y’all. Georgia is not going to vote for a Democratic president this election cycle. Now I understand how one could believe otherwise and, if I’m wrong, I’m prepared to take my words, drop them in my mason jar and swallow them down with a healthy swig of humility. But as a lifelong Georgian who’s the son and grandson of Georgians, it’s just not going to happen — not in my backyard.
When I talk to Republicans and Democrats, they both claim the math is on their side. Neither denies that a demographic increase in Latinos, Asians and African-Americans, particularly in the metro Atlanta area, could tip the scales in the near future, especially in one of the fastest-growing states in the nation. But while Democrats believe that population boom will lead to more souls to the polls, Republicans are skeptical. Who will show up this election who didn’t show in 2008, when Barack Obama was a history-making candidate but John McCain won here by 5 points? Or even two years ago, when much of the same drums were beat, and yet Democrats suffered a major blowout?
The RealClearPolitics poll average recently had Clinton leading Donald Trump, albeit by less than a percentage point and well within the margin of error. One Georgia Republican strategist, who spoke on background, balked at those numbers, pointing out that major party candidates in the Peach State historically run closely in the early months. That’s when the state’s fiercely independent voters consider sitting out or backing a third-partyer. But once they reach the ballot box, they almost always switch to the conservative candidate, causing surprises for those who don’t account for them.
The Democrat leading much of the party’s get-out-the-vote efforts doesn’t disagree. Polls are like a compliment, Abrams tells me: “You want to believe it, but if the underlying work isn’t there, it’s superficial.” Her bullishness is based on the numbers, she says, and she too assumes that independent voters will swing red by November. But with voter turnout higher due to this being a presidential year — Abrams expects 72 percent, a little higher than in ’12 but less than in ’08 — she believes Democrats can make up the 200,000 voter gap from the last midterm election. By her math, with a marginal increase in turnout from African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Hispanics (people of color make up 35 percent of Georgia’s voters), Democrats would just need to boost support from white women by 3 percentage points to elect Clinton.
Yet if her turnout expectations were true, you’d think the number of registered active voters would be up — but the raw totals are down from the last two presidential elections so far, despite population growth. (Abrams says registration is only part of the equation and that the changing composition of the electorate will make the biggest difference in Georgia, where Democrats won’t rely on white voters to win as much as a less-minority heavy state such as North Carolina.) Still, color me skeptical that my home state’s red clay is about to start running blue.
I was there, a cub reporter, when the Democrats hosted their national convention in Atlanta, a clear message in the heart of the conservative Deep South. It was the summer of 2014, and the party’s politicos were abuzz with hope as the aforementioned Carter and Senate candidate Michelle Nunn raised millions nationwide to take on, respectively, the incumbent Gov. Nathan Deal and an antiestablishment businessman named David Perdue. I was in the newsroom at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution when the paper decided to commission a second, costly, gold-standard poll, because it was just so damn close. Indeed, the results had both races close to the margin of error with just a week left.
Imagine then the surprise for us newshounds — and those blue-blood believers — when Republicans swept every statewide office, winning those top two races by 8-point margins. So forgive me for feeling like I’ve seen this script before.