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Battleground States|By Michael Nelson, August 25, 2016

Charles S. Bullock III is the Richard Russell Professor of Political Science at the University of Georgia and the author of several books on southern politics, including the coedited The New Politics of the Old South, now in its fifth edition. What follows is the text of an email interview on Georgia politics today. 

Georgia has voted Republican for president in seven of the last eight elections. Is it, as polls indicate, a tossup state? If so, what has happened to bring this about? If not, what are the polls missing?

Democrats anticipated a potential for success in 2014 and 2016 that could move them from hope to reality. Every recent poll has shown the Georgia electorate narrowly divided between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Contributing to the stronger position enjoyed by the Democratic nominee in 2016 than in previous years is the changing makeup of the electorate. One of these changes is that African Americans are now “voting their weight.” That is, the share of the votes cast by African Americans now closely approximates their share of the adult population. Prior to 2008, the percentage of the vote cast by African Americans was usually about 5 percentage points lower than their share of the potential electorate. In 2008 and 2012, blacks cast 30 percent of the vote and comprised about 30% of the eligible electorate. While this pattern emerged coincident with the first Obama candidacy it is not limited to his presence on the ballot. In 2010 blacks cast 28.2% of the ballots and in 2014 the black share reached 28.7%. Since Democrats do better at getting to the polls in presidential than mid-term elections, it is reasonable to expect that African Americans will constitute about 30% of the 2016 turnout.

A second factor is that Democratic Party unity behind Clinton exceeds GOP coalescence around Trump. Recent polls show that the percentages of Democrats intending to vote for Clinton exceeds the share of Republicans backing Trump. If the Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson siphons off enough Republican identifiers it could lead to a situation like in 1992, the last time that Georgia’s electors went to a Democrat. Ross Perot won 13% of the vote as an independent candidate in Georgia and that allowed Bill Clinton to take the state with a plurality of less than 14,000 votes. The Green Party failed to get enough signatures to appear on the Georgia ballot in 2016 but the Libertarians will have a line.

Is Georgia’s electorate changing in ways that advantage either party?

In addition to the higher turnout rates among African Americans, Georgia’s electorate is becoming more diverse. The numbers of Hispanics and Asian Americans are growing. In 2014, for the first time the exit poll provided an estimate of Hispanic preferences. The exit poll estimate put the Hispanic share of the vote at 4% while the state’s post-election audit was much lower at 1%. In part the difference is attributable to the recency with which the state added Hispanic as a category when voters register. Previously, the options were black, white or other and some Latinos who registered before having Hispanic as a choice identified themselves as white.

Younger Georgians are more Democratic than their parents or grandparents. In 2014 not only did Millennials favor the Democrats (Michelle Nunn for Senate and Jason Carter for governor), so did voters aged 30 – 44. Polls this year also show younger voters tending Democratic while the older voters continue to prefer Trump.

Has Georgia done better or worse economically than most other states? Will that make a difference on election day?

Atlanta is doing well and most voters live in the 28-county Atlanta MSA. The Atlanta area is also more Democratic than the state as a whole. Atlanta went Democratic in 2014 and Clinton is winning the Atlanta area in the polls this year. [I do not know how the pollsters define Atlanta; they probably do not include all of the MSA.]

Parts of rural Georgia, especially the Southwest (the area Jimmy Carter comes from) remains stagnant with little industry and continue to experience a population exodus.

Compared with other recent Republican presidential nominees, are there any particular advantages or disadvantages that Donald Trump brings to the race?

In a word, NO. He has the support of white males, especially those with little or no college. He does less well among white women and they hold the balance in Georgia elections. White males are the most loyal Republicans. Minorities prefer Democrats and to the extent there is a group in play it is white women.

White evangelicals or those born again constitute the core constituency for the Georgia GOP. This group gives overwhelming support to Trump although he does not poll as well among these voters as Sen. David Perdue and Gov. Nathan Deal did in 2014.

Some GOP operatives with whom I have spoken will not vote for Trump. They won’t vote for Clinton so they will either opt for the Libertarian or skip over the presidential contest.

How about Hillary Clinton—any particular advantages or disadvantages that she brings to the race compared with other recent Democratic nominees?

She probably gets the votes of some white women, especially better educated white women, who would not vote for other Democrats. Her main asset, however, is that she is not Donald Trump. Polls show her not doing much better among whites than the 23% who voted for Michelle Nunn two years ago. With so little support among whites, Clinton would need for the Libertarian to do better than in recent elections.

Have any of the recent controversies about laws making it harder to vote arisen in Georgia?

No. Georgia and Indiana were the first two states to implement photo ID requirements for voting. The Georgia law has been in place beginning with the 2008 election. It was approved by the Department of Justice pursuant to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and survived challenges filed in federal and state court. As noted above, African American turnout rates have increased since implementation of the requirement.

In 2008, Georgia allowed early voting as much as 45 days prior to election. Soon thereafter the early voting period was reduced to 20 days. Again there is no evidence that the shorter period negatively affected turnout among minorities.

How about further down the ballot, where Republicans also have dominated in recent years? Do Democratic chances seem likely to improve in elections for state office or for Congress?

Georgia’s constitutional officers compete in the mid-term. In 2016 the only statewide posts on the ballot are a seat on the Public Service Commission and Sen. Johnny Isakson’s reelection bid. Isakson leads in the polls and is the most popular politician in the state. Georgia is unique in requiring a majority not only in party primaries but also in the general election. Twice before (1992 and 2008) a general election runoff was needed to decide a Senate contest. Isakson, while leading his unknown but wealthy opponent, is not polling above 50%. If a runoff should be necessary it will occur in early January. There have not been many statewide general election runoffs but of those that have taken place, Republicans have always won.

Public Service Commission contests attract little attention as the candidates are largely unknown and spend little money. People, for the most part, vote their party.

In 2014 Rick Allen (R) won the one marginal congressional district, the 12th which runs from Augusta southwest toward Valdosta. This district, which has a R+9 Cook PVI score, had voted for John Barrow (D) in 2012 when he had the good fortune to draw one of the weakest challengers to compete in a competitive district anywhere in the nation. But the reduced Democratic turnout in the 2014 mid-term and a more competent GOP challenger succeeded in defeating Barrow, the last white Democrat representing a Deep South congressional district. The four districts held by Democrats have strong, African American incumbents who will win easy reelection from their majority-black constituents. The other 10 districts are safely Republican.

It is possible that a handful of state legislative districts will shift from GOP to Democrat. The likely shifts are in the Atlanta metro area where minorities are spreading further out from the center city into additional rings of suburbia. One state senate district won by a Republican in a low-turnout special election will almost certainly elect a black Democrat this fall. The first Latina to serve in the General Assembly will win this fall and it is possible that additional Hispanics will join the 2 who currently serve in the state House.

Is there anything about Georgia politics that most political observers outside the state tend to miss?

In 2012 Georgia gave Mitt Romney his next to smallest victory in any state he carried. This alone encourages Democrats to look at Georgia as a state in which they might win if they make a sufficient contribution in terms of money and personnel. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has urged the Clinton campaign to earmark $8 – 14 million for Georgia. If the current conditions persist with recently competitive states like Colorado and Virginia seeming securely in the Democratic column, that would free up the resources that Reed has called for.