Georgia was a fat disappointment for Democrats in 2014. Years of demographic transformation seemed to be opening new opportunities. A dominant bloc of aging white conservatives that had recently pivoted from the Democratic Party to the GOP appeared to be losing their stranglehold on the state’s politics. Having fielded solid, well-funded candidates for Governor and the Senate, they expected those races to at least run close.
Results from last year’s election raise a lot of interesting questions about the state of play in Georgia and the power of the Blue Wall. Determining whether the state will once again be competitive in Presidential elections, and more importantly – when – hinges on the answers to these four questions:
– Have Georgia’s Dixiecrats completed their flight to the Republican Party?
– Can the state’s aggressive campaign of vote suppression dampen minority engagement just enough to retain white dominance?
– When will Hispanics show up to the political process?
– Most importantly, will Republicans find a way to retain affluent whites in Atlanta’s close-in suburbs?
The first question is probably the easiest to answer. We have almost certainly witnessed the high-water mark of Republican power in Georgia in our era.
Looking at trends in state and federal elections across the past four decades it becomes clear that the flight of Georgia’s Dixiecrats petered out early in the Bush II years, probably about 2002. Democrats have been experiencing a long hangover, ticking back up by only 3-4 percentage points from their nadir. Now, demographic trends are all running strongly, though slowly, in the Democrats’ favor.
Gaining only 45% of the vote in 2014 was a disappointment for Democrats, but there are some other factors to consider. Democrats do poorly in low-turnout elections. Georgians cast a third-fewer votes in 2014 than in 2012, however their top of the ticket candidate retained the same percentage. That is a very significant number, suggesting that at the higher turnout levels of a Presidential election year that figure would be somewhere between 47-48% at least.
Current Republican power in Georgia is founded on white conservatives who migrated to the party over the past generation. They are aging and literally dying. Younger Georgians, even young people who otherwise match the demographic character of the Dixiecrats, are following in their footsteps by smaller and smaller margins. Rebranding Southern conservatism from Jim Crow to Jesus is losing its magic. Barring an historic transformation of the Republican agenda, the loss of Republican dominance in Georgia is just a question of attrition.
That said, attrition can be very slow. If you can delay the “inevitable” long enough then it is no longer so inevitable. That’s where Georgia’s particularly aggressive campaign of vote suppression becomes important.
Vote suppression in Georgia is far more comprehensive than the modest Voter ID campaigns Republicans have leveraged elsewhere. Georgia officials have mounted a sustained, targeted campaign that has limited voting hours, harassed community volunteers, and significantly raised the cost of minority political organization in the state. The effectiveness of this effort is hard to measure because its most potent effects are very subtle.
If black turnout is the stat that indicates success or failure, than vote suppression has backfired. The black community is more dedicated, resolved, engaged, and hostile to the GOP than it has ever been.
That is probably the wrong measure to use. Although the black population is growing, they are not Republicans’ most serious concern. Hispanics are the rising force in Georgia politics. In that community, vote suppression looks like a resounding success.
Two issues keep Hispanics under-represented in Georgia politics. First, despite their population numbers at almost 10% of the state’s residents and growing fast, they are very young. With a median age of only 25, a vast majority of the state’s nearly 900,000 Hispanics are under 40, a demographic swath that under-participates in politics across every demographic group. They are a large population, but only a modest electorate – for now.
Contributing to their under-representation is a history of systematic exclusion from Southern politics. Hispanics have never had a credible avenue to organize and express their political interests anywhere in the South. Under those conditions they have developed their own collection of institutions almost completely independent of organized electoral politics. Their experience has been different from the black community in some very important ways.
Connections to Mexico provided an avenue of flight when abuses from the majority community occasionally reached critical levels. Where the black community was pressed by their lack of alternatives to organize and participate actively in the system, Hispanics in the South developed a completely different template of responses to Jim Crow and its aftermath, largely bypassing elections.
It will take time for the new opportunity to inspire an evolution of the institutions that influence Hispanic communities in the South. Vote suppression has been fairly effective in delaying that evolution and continuing Hispanic alienation. That evolution might be slow, but it is likely to appear in election results very suddenly. In other words, Hispanic political power may or may not show up in a dramatic way in 2016 or 2020, but when it does show up it will surprise everyone. Vote suppression is working for now, but it is a brittle dam holding back an inevitable flood.
It is easy to find articles describing Republicans’ challenges with minority communities, but perhaps the largest factor in determining whether the state becomes competitive will be a topic neither party is taking very seriously. The fastest growing political force in Georgia is its urban population.
At the national level, Democrats take the cities for granted and Republicans dismiss them out of hand. Trapped in that dynamic, urban and suburban voters are becoming increasingly alienated.
Georgia’s countryside is emptying into Atlanta at a rapidly expanding pace. Young people who move to the city may bring with them a template of political alliances and assumptions that are very old, but that template evolves quickly under new urban demands. Democrats are the only figures that pretend an interest in urban concerns issues, but the long absence of competition is creating weakness.
Republicans count on support from suburban and exurban whites, but in metro Atlanta that support is in steep decline. Those declines are most pronounced, dropping by almost a quarter over the past decade, in the counties closest to the city, but they are universal across the area. For example, the rock-hard Republican enclave of Forsyth County gave a stunning 79% of its vote to Republican Senate candidate David Perdue in 2014. That big win masks a steady, continuing decline from the 85% that Bush won there in 2004. As Atlanta’s suburban counties grow, their Republican character is eroding.
Georgia’s future political direction will most likely be determined by the outcome of races in Atlanta and its near suburbs that are too local and obscure to draw the attention of outsiders. To an ever increasing extent, Georgia = Atlanta. Metro Atlanta already accounts for half of the state’s electorate. That figure is guaranteed to climb for the foreseeable future.
It is not yet clear whether those voters will come to see their interests aligned with the far suburbs or the urban core. So far all of Atlanta’s suburban counties are moving steadily closer to Atlanta politically. If Hilary Clinton does no more than continue the current trend in suburban drift toward the Democrats and maintain the usual pattern of higher Democratic turnout in Presidential election years, then Georgia will be too close to call.
Obama won well over 45% of the vote in Georgia in 2012. If Clinton doesn’t campaign there, she’s still likely to pick up nearly 47% just based on demographic trends. If she can add an additional 60,000 votes from Metro Atlanta over Obama’s 2012 numbers she might win Georgia.
Georgia’s future hinges on a factor separate from race and ethnicity – urbanization. Of the four questions that hang over Georgia’s political future, Republican’s ability to hold Atlanta’s suburbs is the most decisive. Democrats pretend to be the party of cities, but that’s purely a default position handed to them by a Republican capitulation. A party that can restore trust in public schools in Atlanta, obtain solid support for public transit infrastructure, and impose sound fiscal discipline, will control the state for the near future.