|Dear Readers: In the next installment of our States of Play series — in which we’ll be taking an in-depth look at the key states that will decide the presidential election — we look at Georgia, which Democrats are trying to win for the first time since 1992. Crystal Ball Associate Editor J. Miles Coleman and Guest Columnist Niles Francis look at the state’s recent political history and trends. This is our second installment; the first featured Pennsylvania.
— The Editors
KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— Over the last few decades, Georgia has gone from a swing state to reliably GOP. But it’s now looking like a genuinely competitive state again.
— Democrats have made major inroads in both urban Atlanta and its suburbs, but their gains have been somewhat blunted by the sharp Republican trend in other parts of the state.
— In the state’s regular Senate election this year, we’re downgrading Sen. David Perdue’s chances. We now have both Georgia’s seats rated as Leans Republican.
Table 1: Senate rating change
States of Play: Georgia
Though the fundamental camps of red states and blue states have remained relatively static since the 2000 presidential election, some states have entered — or left — the intermediate purple state category since then. Such is the case with Georgia. Since George W. Bush’s double-digit margins there in 2000 and 2004, Democrats have made serious efforts to turn it blue. In fact, despite performing 5% worse nationally than Barack Obama in 2008, Hillary Clinton matched his showing in Georgia.
Maybe Bush’s dominance in the state was an aberration: After all, he’s the only Republican presidential nominee who has carried the state twice. Either way, as part of the Crystal Ball‘s States of Play series, we’ll be looking at why Georgia may be one of the most hotly-contested states this fall.
A recent history
Like most of the South, Georgia was a Democratic stronghold for most of the 20th century. Georgia was so reliably Democratic that, in the razor-close 1960 election, John F. Kennedy got a higher share there (62.5%) than in his home state of Massachusetts (60.2%). Democrats consistently won all the state executive offices with ease, and enjoyed plush majorities in the legislature.
By the 1990s, Georgia looked like a truly competitive two-party state. The Atlanta suburbs served as the early bastion of Republicanism in the state, while in the rural areas, whites were steadily shaking off their Democratic roots — this was a familiar pattern throughout the South at the time. Let’s look back at how state politics has evolved since then.
During the 1990s, Gov. Zell Miller was the most prominent statewide Democrat. An institution in state politics, he served as lieutenant governor for 16 years before winning a promotion in 1990. As governor, he was known for establishing the state’s popular HOPE Scholarship. But Miller was term-limited in 1998. State Rep. Roy Barnes (D) was elected governor by defeating a wealthy self-funder, Guy Millner (R). Despite his loss, Millner will be a recurring character in our historical analysis: In addition to his 1998 candidacy, he was the GOP nominee against Miller in 1994, and he ran for Senate in between those cycles, in 1996 — in all three cases, he lost the general election by single-digits. In terms of timing, there are few more frustrating storylines in electoral politics than Millner’s ballad; had he run a decade later, he would have almost certainly had better luck, given that the state had become more Republican in the 2000s.
In any case, during his time in office, Barnes earned the nickname “King Roy” for his ability to pass his agenda in the state legislature. He is best known for spearheading the movement to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag. Though this was supported by Blacks and moderate suburbanites, it was unpopular among rural white voters across the state. Barnes was also hurt by his administration’s education policy.
2002 ended up being a breakout year for Peach State Republicans. Barnes was challenged by state Senate President Pro Tempore Sonny Perdue (R). Rural whites, who were alienated by Barnes during the state flag episode, propelled Perdue to a 51%-46% win — it was considered a major upset at the time. He became the first Republican to win the governor’s mansion since Reconstruction. At the same time, Democratic Sen. Max Cleland was defeated by Republican Rep. Saxby Chambliss. Both Perdue and Chambliss hailed from the more rural southern part of the state, and defeated Atlanta area-based Democratic opponents — this dynamic would mark future statewide races as well. Aside from the statewide races, the sweetest victory for Republicans was ousting state House Speaker Tom Murphy (D). Representing a rural western district, Murphy had led the chamber since 1973.
After defeating Barnes, Republicans continued to make gains in the state. In 2000, Barnes appointed Miller to the Senate following the death of Republican Sen. Paul Coverdell. Miller easily won the special election that November but did not seek a full term in 2004 — the same year the conservative Democrat spoke in favor of President George W. Bush’s reelection at the Republican National Convention. Georgia Republican Rep. Johnny Isakson easily flipped the open seat, and across the South, Republicans flipped open Senate seats in four other states. In 2006, Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor (D) challenged Perdue for reelection. Perdue won in a landslide, 58%-38%. Exit polling from 2006 showed Perdue winning 17% of the Black vote — impressive for a southern Republican. Down the ballot, state Sen. Casey Cagle (R) flipped the open Lieutenant Governor’s office, becoming the first Republican lieutenant governor in Georgia history.
In 2008, Barack Obama made a serious play for Georgia’s electoral votes, but the state ultimately stuck with GOP nominee John McCain by five percentage points. Obama’s coattails were enough to hold Sen. Saxby Chambliss under 50% on Election Day, but he won the ensuing runoff with ease the next month — we’ll talk more about Georgia’s unique runoffs later. In 2010, Barnes sought to regain the governor’s mansion, but lost to then-Rep. Nathan Deal (R, GA-9). Further cementing their dominance, Republicans won all the statewide executive offices and netted seats in the legislature.
Democrats continued to express optimism about regaining their lost ground in the state but came up short cycle after cycle. In 2014, Chambliss decided not to seek a third term, giving the Democrats a rare offense opportunity in a year where they were largely focused on defending their Senate majority. Michelle Nunn, the daughter of longtime former Sen. Sam Nunn (D), was the Democratic nominee for the open seat. One of Nunn’s ads featured an endorsement from Zell Miller — since leaving office in 2004, he had mostly endorsed Republicans, so Miller had rare credibility. Wealthy businessman David Perdue — cousin of then-former Gov. Sonny Perdue — emerged from a crowded primary and then a won a close runoff. In the race for governor, Deal stood for a second term against state Sen. Jason Carter (D), the grandson of President Jimmy Carter. Despite being highly touted by the national party, both Nunn and Carter lost by an eight-point margin.
In 2016, Donald Trump won the state over Hillary Clinton 50%-45%, and Sen. Isakson won reelection by double-digits against minimal Democratic opposition. Though Clinton lost the state, there were some signs of a shift in the Atlanta suburbs. Cobb County and Gwinnett County, two suburban counties that backed Mitt Romney in 2012, voted for Clinton. She managed to hold Trump to just a 1.5-point victory in the 6th Congressional District, a suburban seat in north Atlanta that was long the anchor of the state’s GOP coalition. These political shifts can be attributed to a huge demographic change in suburban Atlanta, as well as anti-Trump sentiment among white moderates, particularly women. Gwinnett County, in particular, has a growing Asian and Hispanic community. In fact, an analysis by Elections Daily argues that even though North Carolina voted for Obama in 2008, it lacks a county comparable to Gwinnett — so Georgia may actually be a better Electoral College target for Democrats than the Tar Heel State.
Writing in the Center for Politics’ post-2018 book, The Blue Wave, National Journal Hotline reporter Madelaine Pisani recalled that in 2018, Georgia Democrats were excited about the candidacy of Stacey Abrams — she was their leader in the state House and the first Black woman to be nominated by either party for governor in any state. Her Republican opponent was Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who defeated Cagle in a GOP runoff after earning Trump’s endorsement.
2018 was a very polarizing general campaign, with accusations of voter suppression and hacking. Kemp narrowly prevailed by 1.4%, though Abrams made major inroads in metro Atlanta. Abrams took 54% in Cobb County and 57% in Gwinnett County — they had voted GOP for governor four years earlier — but Kemp’s rural strength carried the day. Democrats did see some success in non-statewide races, though. After losing a high-profile special election there in 2017, they flipped GA-6, and nearly took the neighboring GA-7. Democrats also improved their standing in the state legislature, as they gained about a dozen seats that were located, mostly, in the northern Atlanta suburbs.
This time around, a preponderance of recent polling suggests Georgia is competitive. The Biden campaign will aim to hold and expand on Democrats’ new coalition of suburban voters, but outreach to Black voters in rural Georgia should be a priority. Still, the state has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1996, so Democrats’ optimism needs to be tempered with some dose of caution. But if the national picture doesn’t improve for Trump, Georgia’s 16 electoral votes could end up in the blue column.
Shifting regions move Georgia into play
The divergent political currents churning within Georgia have helped push it to swing state status, so breaking things down by region may be insightful. James Comerford, a Georgia-based friend of the Crystal Ball, condensed the state’s 159 counties down into 18 political regions (Map 1).
Map 1: Regions of Georgia
Table 2: Georgia regions by race and 2016 partisanship
Like many states, politics in Georgia is often cast as a tug-of-war between a major urban area — in this case, Atlanta — and the rest of the state. In some ways, the breakdown bears this out: 4.8 million residents, or just over 47% of the state’s 2018 population, live in either the Urban Atlanta or Suburban Atlanta regions. In 2010, the two regions claimed a lesser 45.5% of the statewide population, so they’ve grown at a rate faster than the state as a whole. Add in the non-contiguous Exurban Atlanta (purple on Map 1), and the three Atlanta regions claim 52% of the state’s 2018 population.
In 2016, Clinton carried the combined Urban and Suburban Atlanta regions 57%-40% — but that couldn’t make up for her 62%-35% deficit in the rest of the state. In 2008, Barack Obama lost the state by the same 5%, and his formula was similar, but the gap was less severe: he carried those two Atlanta regions by an aggregate 55%-44% while losing the rest of the state about 60%-40%.
Atlanta is the metro area that receives the most attention in Georgia — perhaps merited, given its size — but Comerford identifies four key metro regions south of Atlanta: Columbus, Macon, Augusta, and Savannah. Each is at least 1/3 Black, giving Democrats something of a base to work with. On either side of the state, Clinton carried the Columbus and Augusta regions in 2016, while doing slightly worse than her statewide performance in Savannah and Macon (each region gave Trump 52%, compared to his overall 50%). Just east of Atlanta, the Athens region is somewhat competitive. Though it’s more than two-thirds white, the faculty and employees of the University of Georgia make Athens-Clarke County blue, but that’s more than cancelled out by the presence of a few adjacent, ruby red counties in the region.
While much talk about Georgia’s political trends centers on Atlanta’s suburbs, other parts of the state have seen even more dramatic shifts.
Let’s consider two recent gubernatorial elections.
In 1994, Democratic Gov. Zell Miller was running for reelection. As discussed at the beginning of the article, 1994 was Republican Guy Millner’s first statewide run. Against a well-financed opponent, Miller admits in his autobiography, “I barely got by,” while noting that he was lucky to win, even as bigger personalities in the Democratic Party, such as New York’s Mario Cuomo and Texas’ Ann Richards, went down in that red wave year.
If Miller scraped by in a red wave year, 2018 was the opposite. With a favorable national environment, Democrats were optimistic about winning the governorship with Abrams as their gubernatorial nominee. Despite Democrats’ high expectations, Abrams came up just short. Comparing Miller’s 2% win to Abrams’ narrow loss, some highly nationalized trends emerge (Map 2).
Map 2: Georgia 1994 and 2018 governor by region
While the blue wave in 2018 aided Abrams in the suburbs, her biggest improvement over Miller actually came in Urban Atlanta. She more than doubled Miller’s margin, taking his 23% edge there up to a 57% margin. Though 53% of the region’s population is Black, that it has a large contingent of wealthier, college-educated whites — specifically in the northern part of Fulton County — suggests that Democratic gains there weren’t driven by minority voters alone.
Outside of metro Atlanta, the sole region Abrams flipped from Millner was Augusta. Comerford defines the region as the duo of Richmond County — which is coterminous with the city of Augusta — and Columbia County, which is less urban. Looking at long-term demographic trends, the increasing presence of minority voters does seem to be a factor in its political shift. In 1994, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that the Richmond-Columbia County pair was 58.5% white — by 2018, that dropped to 49.6%.
Abrams won the same four regions that Clinton carried in 2016: Urban Atlanta, plus the smaller Augusta and Columbus metros, as well as the Southwest, with its sizable rural Black population.
In 1994, there was a notable lack of landslide regions. Of the 18 regions, only two, Urban Atlanta and Columbus, gave either candidate more than a 20% margin, and they were both in Miller’s favor. By 2018, landslide regions were a hallmark of the map — only eight regions were within 20%, and as the maps show, that had much to do with the rural regions swinging to Kemp.
Exit polling from 1994 pegged the Georgia electorate at 16% Black. In 2018, post-election statistics from the Georgia Secretary of State showed that number had nearly doubled, to 29%. That the Democratic margin got worse despite the growth of the Black share of the electorate — a very Democratic demographic — speaks to the massive red shift among rural whites.
As unusual as this seems in today’s context, until the mid-2000s, rural whites in southern Georgia used to be a prime swing constituency. Let’s consider another pair of elections, this time from 1998.
In 1998, GOP Sen. Paul Coverdell was reelected to a second term 52%-45%. Though it was a single-digit race, the last three cycles that Coverdell’s seat was up — 1980, 1986, and 1992 — the result was 51%-49% vote either way. So Coverdell’s 7% win in 1998 was a relative landslide, and it looked like the Republican had begun to lock down the seat (though he tragically died two years later). Down the ballot, after Miller hung on in that 1994 gubernatorial race, Democrats had an easier time holding his office. In a more neutral year and against the same Republican candidate (Millner) who ran four years earlier, Roy Barnes won the governorship by just over 8%. 1998 was the last time that Georgia split its ticket in its big contests, with Coverdell and Barnes each sporting comfortable, though not overwhelming, margins. (Map 3)
Map 3: Georgia in 1998
On Barnes’ map, an anomaly — by today’s standards — is the Southwest. As Crystal Ball guest columnist Drew Savicki pointed out in an article earlier this year, the region is split about evenly between Blacks and blue collar whites. The latter group has trended GOP, as the party has taken a more populist direction, while the former has generally turned out in lower numbers since President Obama left office. Rep. Sanford Bishop (D), the area’s longtime representative, carved out a unique niche as a moderate Black incumbent, but his crossover appeal doesn’t extend to all local Democrats. In 1998, the Southwest was Barnes’ best region, giving him a 66%-33% vote compared to his 64%-33% margin in Urban Atlanta.
With those trends in mind, let’s look at how the down ballot picture is shaping up this year.
At the senatorial level, the Peach State is in a rare situation — in what we call a “double-barrel” scenario, both its Senate seats are up this year. Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) was scheduled to face voters this year anyway, while in late 2019, his colleague Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) stepped aside, citing his health. Isakson was replaced by wealthy businesswoman Kelly Loeffler (R-GA). A critical structural difference between the contests is that the special election will be held under Louisiana-style “jungle primary” rules — if no candidate clears 50% in an all-party primary in November, an early January runoff will be in order.
The regular Senate election
The Crystal Ball last visited Georgia in April, when we changed the rating of the regular Senate race from Leans Republican to Likely Republican. Since then, Democrats do seem to have picked up some momentum against Sen. Perdue. Though the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee didn’t endorse him before last month’s contest, 2017 GA-6 special election candidate Jon Ossoff (D) emerged as the frontrunner in the Democratic primary and won the nomination outright. Had Ossoff fallen under 50%, a nine-week runoff against a fellow Democrat would have been in the offing.
In April, Perdue himself seemed to be sounding the alarm, warning donors that Democrats have made the state competitive. In fact, Republican outside groups are starting to come in with major ad buys. Perhaps we were a bit too bullish on the GOP’s prospects in moving the race to Likely Republican. Presidential polling in Georgia is close, and it seems like the regular Senate race will be more closely linked to that than we originally anticipated. Leans Republican seems like the fairer rating.
The Senate special election
The special election for U.S. Senate in Georgia is living up to its name. Appointed Sen. Kelly Loeffler is trying to hold her seat, but she faces stiff competition on the Republican side from Rep. Doug Collins (R, GA-9), whose national profile skyrocketed during the House impeachment investigation. On the Democratic side, the national party is trying to rally around the Rev. Raphael Warnock, who preaches at Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Loeffler was on the receiving end of bad news headlines earlier this year after it was revealed that she and her husband sold millions of dollars in personal stock following a White House briefing on the coronavirus. Though federal investigators cleared Loeffler of any wrongdoing, the story may have damaged her standing with the voters, as many were introduced to her through the negative headlines. Her unfavorable rating was as high as 59% in a May poll. She has a lot of time (and money) to turn things around, but it’s hardly an ideal vantage point, especially for a new senator. Special elections, particularly jungle primaries, tend to be very unpredictable.
We are going to keep this race at Leans Republican for now, but Democrats’ best shot at winning this seat would be an outright victory in November, as the runoff election in January would likely have lower turnout. But because there are multiple Democratic candidates, including former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman’s son, Matt, an outright victory by Warnock seems very unlikely. As University of Georgia professor Charles Bullock summed up in the Crystal Ball’s post-2002 book, Midterm Madness, “being a Georgia senator used to be a career.” Bullock contrasted the shorter tenures of the state’s more recent senators to some of its former members from the 20th century — such as Richard Russell, Herman Talmadge, and Sam Nunn, who each spent decades in the chamber. Loeffler’s tenure may end up taking Bullock’s maxim to the extreme, but the dynamics of the race favor Republicans.
In Senate races, runoffs offer Republicans an insurance policy
Digging back into the state’s history, one of the biggest hurdles for Democrats in Georgia this year is that it’s the only state (aside from a state like Louisiana, which that uses a jungle primary system with a 50% threshold for victory) that requires general election runoffs if no candidate clears 50% of the vote in November.
In neighboring North Carolina, it’s easy to see the Democratic nominee, Cal Cunningham, squeak by in November with a plurality — in fact, his opponent, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) did just that in 2014, as he won 49%-47%. But Georgia requires that candidates, except for those running in presidential contests, must win a majority of the vote.
Since the 1990s, the runoff dynamic has helped Republicans. In 1992, Bill Clinton carried Georgia with a 43.5% plurality. Down the ballot, Sen. Wyche Fowler (D-GA) was held to just 49.2%, and was forced into a runoff a few weeks later against his Republican challenger, Paul Coverdell. In the runoff, Coverdell won 51%-49%, as turnout was down by nearly 50% — perhaps Democrats, who had just flipped the presidency and held their majority in the Senate, had gotten complacent after the initial vote.
After that senatorial loss in 1992, Democrats in the legislature, under Speaker Murphy, repealed the runoff law — sure enough, that change paid dividends. When Clinton was up for reelection, he expanded his margin nationally, but did so without Georgia’s electoral votes. Clinton’s coattails were notoriously short that year, but Democrats held the seat of veteran Sen. Sam Nunn. Max Cleland, at the time the Democratic Secretary of State, finished with 48.9% to Republican Guy Millner’s 47.5% (yes, that one). If that race had gone to a runoff, a redux of 1992 could have played out, especially considering voters’ willingness to split their tickets that year, and to the benefit of congressional Republicans.
In 2008, amidst a national wave in their favor, Senate Democrats targeted Sen. Saxby Chambliss but the race was considered something of a reach — in part, because by 2008, Georgia’s law requiring general election runoffs had been reinstated. As Obama lost the state by a respectable 52%-47%, Chambliss was held to 49.8% on Election Day. In the ensuing December runoff, a familiar pattern took hold: as turnout dropped by more than 40%, Chambliss beat the Democratic nominee, former state legislator Jim Martin, by 15%. As with 1992, Democrats won the presidency and were already in firm control of Congress, so any sense of urgency seemed to evaporate after the November election.
The pattern of Democratic underperformance in runoffs is a key reason why we don’t have either race rated as more competitive than Leans Republican. Perhaps, for the regular election, Ossoff’s polling will improve to the point that winning outright in November seems feasible. For now, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Recent polling from Fox News gives Perdue a 45%-42% edge — within the margin of error, to be sure, but Ossoff isn’t close to 50%.
The special election seems headed to Jan. 5 runoff regardless of the November outcome, given the structure of the race. If control of the chamber is in play — a real possibility — the dynamics could be volatile.
In addition to the Senate races, national political observers will certainly be watching two congressional races in the Atlanta area.
Moving northeast from the state capitol building in Atlanta, Interstate 85 runs right through the heart of Georgia’s 7th Congressional District. It is one of the fastest-growing districts in the United States. The bulk of the district’s residents are in diverse Gwinnett County. GA-7 also takes in most of Forsyth County, which is wealthier and much whiter, but has a high share of college graduates. For the past several decades, neither side saw the area as especially competitive — but that’s changed in the Trump era.
Despite the broadly favorable national environment, GA-7 was not seen as a top pickup opportunity for Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections. As Trump received 51% of the vote here in 2016, the Republican incumbent, Rob Woodall, was reelected with more than 60% of the vote. Trump’s showing here was a huge drop from McCain and Romney, whose numbers were both on par with Woodall’s. Still, GA-7 ultimately ended up being the site of the closest House race in the country in 2018. Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux, a college professor, held Woodall to a victory of fewer than 500 votes.
Following his narrow reelection, Woodall — who was initially elected in 2010, when the seat was much more amicable to Republicans — announced in early 2019 that he would not run for reelection in 2020. His retirement triggered crowded primaries on both sides.
To the surprise of at least some observers, neither primary was forced to a runoff. Bourdeaux and emergency room physician Rich McCormick (R) managed to emerge from crowded primaries with more than 50% of vote, and the race is now in general election mode.
In addition to her name recognition, Bourdeaux also has the trends of the district, and state, on her side. Fox News polling from late June showed Biden with a slight lead in Georgia. If this is the case, it is not difficult to imagine Biden doing well in GA-7. In the 2018 gubernatorial race, Abrams lost statewide by 1.4% but carried GA-7 by exactly that margin. As Map 4 shows, Abrams’ showing was a dramatic improvement from how Barack Obama fared there a decade earlier.
Map 4: GA-7 in 2008 and 2018
Looking to November, Georgia seems poised to receive attention from both sides, up and down the ballot. While it does seem to be shifting more into the purple state category, if Biden carries the state, he would likely already be over 270 electoral votes. With one, or both, of its Senate races likely heading to a runoff, political junkies could have Georgia on their minds even after the November general elections. Finally, Georgia’s two competitive House seats speak to the rapid pace of changes that parts of the state have seen. In 2016, the Crystal Ball rated both GA-6 and GA-7 as Safe Republican. After nearly a full term of the Trump presidency, Democrats are favored to hold the former and have at least an even money chance to flip the latter.
|J. Miles Coleman is associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball.
Niles Francis is an election analyst from Atlanta who covers 2020 races for the elections reporting organization Decision Desk HQ. His Twitter handle is @NilesGApol.