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How Georgia got to the center of the US political universe

Georgia may feel teleported to the center of the US political universe, but its emergence as a swing state has been a long time coming.

That doesn’t make its political evolution any less remarkable. One of the five Southern states that voted for the segregationist George Wallace in 1968, it joins Virginia as one of two Southern states to oppose Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.

It’s not the folksy rhetoric of a White man pushing a connection to rural America — Jimmy Carter, from Plains, Georgia, or Bill Clinton, from Hope, Arkansas, that won Georgia for President-elect Joe Biden.

It was a sophisticated turnout operation that awoke more than 150,000 more votes in the urban Atlanta region in 2020 compared to 2016 and, separately, rapidly growing suburbs fed up with Trump’s brand of conservatism. It’s a quickly growing population, and a diversifying one, that responded to those efforts. Atlanta is a capitol of Black American culture and the state has seen a massive influx of Latinos.

Related: How Atlanta rappers helped flip the White House (and they’re hustling to flip the US Senate)

This year, no other US state has felt more important:

  • Biden’s razor-thin Georgia victory was decisive in his commanding electoral college win
  • The honesty of its GOP election officials countered Trump’s specious allegations of voter fraud
  • Its twin Senate runoffs will determine which party controls the US Senate, which has enormous implications for what Biden can accomplish (or not) during the first two years of his presidency.

After nearly three decades supporting Republican presidential candidates — the last Democrat Georgia supported was Bill Clinton in 1992 — its vote for Biden seemed like a surprise, but it came after a remarkable grassroots campaign to get new voters to the polls and years of demographic shifts that have created a more diverse population.

What kind of swing state will Georgia be?

The question for Georgia is whether Democratic gains signal a real shift or a mirage. After all, among swing states, there are those permanently in the category, like Florida and Ohio, there are those transitioning from reliably supporting one party to the other, like Virginia, and there are fluke states.

Barack Obama turned two previously red southern states blue in 2008. But while Virginia has stayed in the Democratic column in each successive presidential election and now seems as reliably blue as any other US state, North Carolina veered back to Republicans, although it has remained at the top of Democrats’ target list.

The outcome of the twin Senate runoffs in Georgia on January 5 will hold some indication and test the turnout operation Stacey Abrams undertook with her organization The New Georgia Project after she narrowly lost the 2018 governor’s race there.

Related: For Stacey Abrams, Revenge is a dish best served blue

Getting people who haven’t been voting and engaging younger voters have long been the aim of Democrats who want to appeal to the wide range of minority voters. Actually making it happen is what helped them win in Georgia.

“We have seen dramatic turnout among communities that typically are not at the top of mind for candidates. We have seen them be engaged, be encouraged and we have seen them turn out,” Abrams told CNN on Election Day in November.

Part of it might also come down to paying attention. Democrats focused national efforts on Georgia and won. They frustrated Texas Democrats when they didn’t pay as much attention there with visits by national candidates, and lost.

I talked to Andra Gillespie, a professor at Emory University and director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference, to better understand the trends specifically in Georgia.

When I spoke to her in June, by the way, it still seemed like a reach for Biden to win Georgia, even if the state was clearly in play, and probably will be for years to come.

But the most important thing I took from our conversation last week is that parties are constantly realigning. And today’s Democrats and Republicans could be unrecognizable in the future.

Our phone conversation, lightly edited for length and flow, is below:

A decades-long shift to some form of purple

WHAT MATTERS: What’s going on in Georgia, broadly speaking, with a shift toward Democrats right now?

GILLESPIE: What we have seen in the last decade is that in statewide elections in Georgia is that Democrats have been increasing their margins. They’ve been garnering more votes. They’ve been narrowing the gap between them and the Republican Party. So if they were going to continue on that trajectory, it was only a matter of time before Democrats were going to pass Republicans in terms of the vote.

Winning the presidential election is only one data point, so I can’t, I can’t create a trend just yet with respect to that. What I suspect we’re entering into is an era of increased competition where I’m expecting that we’re going to continue to see very narrow margins between Democratic and Republican candidates in statewide elections, where Democrats win some elections and Republicans some elections.

I don’t think Georgia is blue by any stretch of the imagination, but it is moving towards some form of purple and I wouldn’t be surprised if we stay there for, you know, the next decade or so.

A new shift is changing the state

WHAT MATTERS: How is the Georgia that Biden won different than the Georgia that Carter won, or before that, Wallace?

GILLESPIE: What we saw in the ’80s and ’90s, in any race that didn’t involve Sam Nunn, was a shift of White voters away from the Democratic Party and toward the Republican Party.

Southern whites were a firm part of the New Deal coalition and that starts to change after the Civil Rights Movement. It didn’t happen overnight. It took a long period of time. It culminated in the 2000s, at the beginning of the decade, with Sonny Perdue’s gubernatorial victory and a change in party of the control in the state House of Representatives. And then it culminated by the 2010s at the end of the decade, when all of the statewide offices were won by Republican candidates.

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That’s a very different shift than what’s happening now. We’re not seeing a big shift in terms of White voters in the state of Georgia, even though Georgia has a nontrivial number of White Democratic voters. What we’re seeing is a growth in the nonwhite population and in the nonwhite electorate that tends to lean Democratic in its voting behavior. That, coupled with a nontrivial number of White Democratic voters, is making the state more competitive.

We also have to credit the effort of both the Democratic Party and outside groups in reaching out to likely Democratic voters, getting them registered to vote and then getting them educated and mobilized so that they actually turn out to vote.

Democrats need a coalition

GILLESPIE: What we’ve seen happen in the last 20 years in the state is, one: the size of the African American vote makes up 30% of registered voters in the state.

Given the fact that they are 90% Democratic in their voting behaviors, that means they make up the majority of Democratic voters in the state.

But you can’t win with 90% of 30% of the population, so you need a nontrivial number of White voters. And unlike neighboring states, Georgia is in a position where Democrats can get 30% of White voters.

Georgia, unlike South Carolina or Alabama or Mississippi, has a very fast-growing Asian American and Hispanic population.

While the Black electorate grew in the 2000s, the growth has been the most Asian American and Hispanic voters in the 2010s. They were 3% of all of registered voters in 2012, they were 6% of registered voters in this election cycle, and they also break Democratic. And if you get everybody to turn out to vote, you can put a winning electoral coalition together of African American, Asian American, Hispanic and liberal White voters.

Atlanta brings new voters to the state

WHAT MATTERS: Why are the White voters in Georgia potentially more liberal than they are in neighboring southern states?

GILLESPIE: In part because of Atlanta being a financial hub, a tech hub, a hub for the arts. Atlanta is attracting well educated professional types of voters who are more Democratic in their orientation. Whether you’re coming to work for the major universities, whether you’re coming to work in tech or one of the Fortune 500 companies, whether you have come to Georgia to work in the arts and entertainment industry here, in Atlanta. These are voters who are perceived as being more Democratic in their orientation. They also may not be from the region. And they bring different values with them into the state.

The parties will change in the future

WHAT MATTERS: This is a state that voted for George Wallace 52 years ago. What’s it going to look like in 50 years?

GILLESPIE: I have no idea what it is going to look like politically in 50 years. That’s a lot of time. And with one breakthrough election, I can’t extrapolate very far into the future. So I want to hesitate in over reading the data that I have right now.

Suffice to say that when my colleagues and I talk about changing demographics in the state, I want to be very clear that we’re not making a ‘demographics are destiny’ type of argument.

In particular, Georgia is more Democratic now because it’s got growing populations of color who are predisposed to be Democratic in orientation.

This is not to say that 20 or 40 or 50 years from now that these populations are still going to be Democratic in orientation. A lot can change.

Let’s say America can get a handle on its racism problem. You’ll probably see people making fewer political decisions based on the racial identity.

The parties can also change their attitudes. We’ve seen that happen. A hundred years ago, who would have thought that the Democratic Party, the party of segregation, that would be the party of Civil Rights today? But that happened because the party changed its policies on these issues.

Or who would have thought that the party of Lincoln would be the party of Donald Trump?

The parties as we know them today could be different. They may not exist anymore, so I can’t speculate that far into the future. And I think it’s also important to understand that voting behavior and party identification are dynamic and that they are subject to change, depending on what political changes happen, what decisions our society makes in terms of what issues they want to advocate for.

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