by Tom Anstrom
In the wake of Saxby Chambliss’ recent announcement that he won’t be running for re-election, Guy Cecil, the executive director of the DSCC, said “Georgia will now offer Democrats one of our best pick-up opportunities of the cycle.” That statement might be surprising to someone who looks at Georgia and sees a state where Republicans control both U.S. Senate seats and the governor’s mansion. The GOP also holds a supermajority in the state Senate and is just one seat shy of a supermajority in the state House. However, a closer look shows that demographic trends in the state could give Democrats a chance in both the 2014 Senate race and in the Presidential race in 2016.
Bill Clinton carried Georgia in a three-way race in 1992 and came close to winning it in 1996, but Al Gore and John Kerry both lost by double digits. In 2008, the Obama campaign surprised political observers by making early investments into Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia, states then considered to be unconventional battlegrounds. According to data from the Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG), the campaign spent an estimated $4.6 million on broadcast television ads in Georgia in 2008. The Obama campaign also opened 25 offices across the state. Ultimately, the campaign decided in early September to pull some staff and end its advertising.
Candidate Obama fell short in the state but improved upon John Kerry’s performance, winning 47.0% compared to just 41.4% of the vote for Kerry. In 2008, exit polls indicated 98% of African Americans backed Obama, a ten point improvement from 2004 levels. In spite of all the resources he poured into the state, just like John Kerry, Obama won the support of only 23% of white voters. The improvement in Obama’s performance came from increased minority turnout, fueled both by Obama’s campaign activities and a demographic shift underway in the state. Exit polls from the March 2012 Republican presidential primary in Georgia underscore the lack of support among African-Americans for the Republican brand in the state. Exit polls from the primary show that an overwhelming 94% of GOP voters were white, while just 3% were African-American, even though African-Americans make up nearly a third of the statewide population.
Because Georgia is covered by Section Five of the Voting Rights Act the state tracks both voter registration and voter turnout by race on its voter file. According to the State Board of Elections, in 2004 71% of the electorate was white. By 2008 that number dropped to 64%. The efforts of the Obama campaign paid off as the turnout rate among African American voters went from 72.1% to 75.8%.
The state was not targeted in a meaningful way by either side in 2012; the Obama campaign had just four campaign offices and, according to CMAG data, spent no money on broadcast television targeting the state. Despite this, President Obama’s performance dropped only slightly, to 45.5%. Of states that Obama lost in 2012, he had the second smallest losing margin in Georgia behind North Carolina. In 2012 the percent of the electorate that was white dropped again, to 61.4%, but this time the change was driven by demographics, not just turnout as African American turnout dropped back down to 72.6%, a slight increase from 2004 levels, while comprising 30% of the overall electorate. The chart below shows vote share by race over the past four election cycles in the state:
VOTE SHARE BY RACE IN GEORGIA PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS, 2000-2012
Source: Georgia Secretary of State: Elections Division
According to the Census Bureau, in 2000 65.2% of Georgia’s voting age population was white but by 2010 that number dropped to just 59.0%. Over the same time the percentage of voting age Georgians who are African American jumped from 26.6% in 2000 to 29.1% in 2010. The percentage of voting aged Hispanics went from 5.0% in 2000 to 7.5% in 2010.This trend seems likely to continue in the years ahead. In 2010 73.2% of Georgians over 60 were white, while just 46.9% of Georgians under 18 were white.
The changing face of Georgia’s electorate is also reflected in its voter file. According to the secretary of state’s office, from November 2008 to November 2012, the white share of the electorate declined from 62.7% to 59.1%. The percentage of African American registrants remained steady while the number of registered Hispanics to increased slightly. The biggest jump in the state came from voters who identified as “Other.”
Progressives must continue to register new voters, focusing on the African American and Hispanic communities to improve Democratic performance in the state. Georgia remains a conservative state and any Democrat running for Senate will need to find a way to energize the “Obama electorate” of 2008 and 2012 while appealing to more conservative white voters. John Barrow’s victory in GA-12, a district that only voted 43.6% for President Obama, may offer one blueprint for how to do that. Barrow campaigned as a conservative Democrat, but also made a point to reach out to African-American voters in his district. Barrow says he hasn’t given “any serious thought” to running for the Senate seat, but if he or another Democrat ran that kind of targeted campaign, the party could have a shot at pulling an upset, and help move Georgia from being part of the Republican’s solid South to join its neighbors to the north, Virginia and North Carolina.