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A time-lapse profile of Georgia from the 2020 Almanac of American Politics

(A note from Tom: This week I’m stepping aside for something special. The Almanac of American Politics, published every two years since 1972, is a necessity for political junkies, with its reams of demographic and election data and carefully crafted profiles of every state and congressional district. Volume by volume over time, it has become something greater: a sort of time-lapse profile of the nation which occupies a space between settled history and breaking news. The Saporta Report presents an advance look at what the Almanac has to say about Georgia this year.)

Georgia, once a Democratic bastion like the rest of the South, went heavily for Republicans over the past two decades in both federal and state races. But changing demographics have given Democrats hope that they can become competitive in the state – and in 2016 and 2018 the party made impressive progress peeling away suburban Republicans, even if it wasn’t enough to win key statewide races, thanks to residual GOP support in rural areas.
Georgia was the last of the 13 colonies to be founded — by British soldier and politician James Oglethorpe in 1733 as an “asylum of the unfortunate,” reserved for debtors and other outcasts from England. Oglethorpe, a humanitarian, forbade slavery, but the settlers rebelled and repealed his ban in 1750. In 1790, the first census showed Georgia with the smallest population of any of the original 13 states except tiny Delaware and Rhode Island. It was only the fifth largest slave state when the Civil War began. Early in the 20th century, Georgia was still largely agrarian and sparsely populated. Then, beginning in the 1960s, the state shared in the growth explosion taking place in the South. By 2000, it was ranked among the top 10 most populous states, and it’s now the eighth largest. This is the result mainly of the stunning growth in metro Atlanta, which spreads out over the red clay hills of 29 of Georgia’s 159 counties and which grew from 3.1 million people in 1990 to 4.2 million in 2000 and 5.9 million in 2017. Georgia’s median income is about $6,000 below the national average, ahead of several of its regional neighbors but behind both Carolinas.
Even before its demographic surge, Atlanta was in many ways the center of the South. Before the Civil War, Atlanta, located near the south end of the Appalachian chain, was a railroad junction. Its capture by Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman in September 1864 and his scorched-earth March to the Sea did much to produce President Abraham Lincoln’s reelection victory in November 1864 and the Union victory over the Confederacy seven months later. Neither Atlanta’s rise to world eminence nor its role as the “capital” of the South was inevitable. A century ago, Richmond, Charleston and New Orleans all had stronger claims to being the cultural focus of the region. But in the 20th century, two figures imprinted Atlanta on the national imagination. One was Margaret Mitchell, whose 1936 novel Gone With the Wind inspired the eponymous 1939 movie. The other was Martin Luther King Jr., who was based in Atlanta for most of his career and who, with Atlanta- based organizations, ultimately led the civil rights revolution that changed the South and the nation.
Linking the two was Atlanta’s business community, notably Robert Woodruff, who headed Coca-Cola from 1923 to 1955 and made Coke — invented locally by John Stith Pemberton — a worldwide enterprise. (The company was still expanding in 2018, buying the global Costa Coffee brand for$5.1 billion.) Perhaps aware that a global company could not afford to be associated with racial segregation, Woodruff and William Hartsfield, the city’s mayor from 1937 to 1961, cooperated with black leaders and promoted Atlanta as “the city too busy to hate.” Hartsfield’s successor, Ivan Allen Jr., elected in 1961 and 1965, supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as Peachtree Center and the first Hyatt Regency were going up in downtown Atlanta. And if geography made Atlanta, like Chicago, a natural rail hub in the mid-19th century, it was their mayors — Hartsfield in Atlanta, Richard J. Daley in Chicago — who built airports that made their cities major transportation hubs in the mid-20th century. Then, in 1996, came the last, great jolt that created the modern Georgia, the summer Olympics, which kicked off a wave of economic development and worldwide media exposure (although CNN, one of Atlanta’s great native companies, has since moved most of its operations elsewhere).
Today, the metro area’s diversified economy ranges from credit cards (more than 70 percent of transactions are processed in the Atlanta area, employing some 37,000 people) to television and film production (revenue rose from $93 million in 2008 to $2.7 billion in 2017, including such productions as “Black Panther” and “The Walking Dead”). But the state has periodically experienced conflict at the intersection of business and social policy. When Delta, which employs 33,000 people in Georgia, responded to the 2018 high school shootings in Parkland Florida by canceling a standing discount for National Rifle Association members, Republicans in the legislature threatened to end a $50 million sales tax exemption on jet fuel. In the end, lawmakers backed off, but the episode highlighted ongoing strains within the GOP.
Today, Georgia is 31 percent black, 9 percent Hispanic and 4 percent Asian. That’s the third- highest African-American percentage in the country (behind Mississippi and Louisiana) and the second-lowest percentage of whites east of the Mississippi River (after Maryland). The state has seen faster Hispanic population growth than any of the 10 states with the largest Hispanic populations. Nearly 1 of every 10 Georgians is foreign-born, up from 2.7 percent in 1990, and one-third of the foreign-born residents of Atlanta are undocumented, on the higher end of the major metro areas, according to Pew.
Metro Atlanta’s population features wide pockets of prosperity, along with top-flight cultural institutions, a large millennial population and a vibrant LGBT community. African Americans have been moving to middle-class, suburban counties west and southeast of the city, while Hispanics have been clustering along Interstate 85 in Gwinnett County and Interstate 75 in Cobb County to the north. Gwinnett is home to clusters of Koreans, Cubans, Indians, Vietnamese and Mexicans; non-white children account for three of every four students in the school system, up from one in five two decades ago, according to the Washington Post. The FX television show Atlanta, a popular and critical hit, has given the diverse region some national cultural cred.
As this new Atlanta grew up, Georgia’s rural outstate regions have struggled. According to the FCC, 29.1 percent of Georgia’s rural population has no broadband, a rate almost 10 times as high as the state’s urban population. Among the states that didn’t expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, Georgia has one of the highest rates of uninsured low-income adults; this in turn has led to a rash of rural hospital closures. Georgia agriculture ranks high in the production of broilers, peanuts, pecans and cotton, but many farmers were hit hard by Hurricanes Irma in 2017 and Michael in 2018.
Georgia cast the second-highest Democratic percentage for president in 1960, but in the next two elections, Georgia voters swung sharply, backing Barry Goldwater in 1964 and George Wallace in 1968. Statewide election contests were typically fought out in Democratic primaries that pitted Atlanta-supported moderates against rural-supported segregationists or conservatives, and the latter usually won. Then came change, in the person of Jimmy Carter, a former two-term state senator who was elected governor in 1970 with a rural base. After taking office, Carter proclaimed racial reconciliation and installed a portrait of King in the state capitol. Carter thus became one of the first politicians from the rural South to celebrate and honor the civil rights movement, and in the process, set himself on the road to being elected president in 1976. Carter was followed by a series of Democratic governors with connections to rural parts of the state — George Busbee, Joe Frank Harris, Zell Miller and Roy Barnes.
But countervailing political trends transformed Georgia into a mostly Republican state. Affluent voters in metro Atlanta became generally Republican, while white voters outside metro Atlanta became Republican stalwarts; for years, Georgia’s most prominent politician nationally was Republican Rep. Newt Gingrich. George W. Bush carried the state 55%-42% in 2000 and Republican presidential nominees have carried it with between 51 percent and 58 percent of the vote ever since. With help from party switchers, Republicans captured the state Senate in 2002 and the state House in 2004 and have kept large majorities in both chambers. And the GOP has dominated statewide and federal races for the better part of two decades.
Changing demographics in the Atlanta area have given Democrats hope of gaining ground. Barack Obama carried metro Atlanta narrowly in the presidential elections of 2008 and 2012. However, he lost Georgia outside metro Atlanta by a 3-to-2 margin, underlining a widening urban- rural (and black-white) divide. In 2014, Republican consolidation of the rural vote helped GOP candidates defeat highly touted Democrats up and down the ballot by larger-than-predicted margins. But in 2016 and 2018, Democrats made real progress in the state, even if it wasn’t enough to win.
In 2016, Donald Trump won the state, but three metro counties that had supported Mitt Romney in 2012 shifted to Hillary Clinton – Gwinnett, with a 15-point swing, Cobb, with a 14-point swing, and Henry, with a seven-point swing. Clinton carried several other metro counties — including Fulton, Douglas, Rockdale and DeKalb — by margins that were 8 to 13 points higher than Obama had managed four years earlier.
Then, in the 2018 midterms, Georgia was one of the nation’s marquee battlegrounds, thanks to its gubernatorial race. Republicans nominated Brian Kemp, who ran as a Trump acolyte and aired an ad pledging to personally round up “criminal illegals” in his pickup truck. Democrats picked the more liberal of two primary contenders — Stacey Abrams, an African-American former state House minority leader. After gubernatorial elections in 2010 and 2014 with largely static turnout, the two nominees whipped their bases into gear in 2018: Kemp increased Republican gubernatorial votes by 47 percent over 2014, while Abrams increased Democratic votes by a startling 68 percent and won almost 46,000 more votes than Clinton had in a presidential year.
It wasn’t enough to deliver Abrams a win, but the GOP’s gubernatorial margin continued to shrink — from 10 points in 2010 to eight points in 2014 to 1.4 points, or less than 55,000 votes, in 2018. Kemp cleaned up in rural areas, but Abrams trounced Kemp in once-Republican Atlanta suburbs, winning Cobb with 54 percent, Gwinnett with 57 percent and Henry with 57 percent. Democrats also ousted GOP Rep. Karen Handel, who held Gingrich’s old seat; nearly upset another House Republican, Rob Woodall; and gained seats in the state legislature. While the GOP still won every key statewide office in 2018, Georgia seemed on the verge of becoming a genuinely competitive presidential state in 2020. “Nervous Republicans acknowledge they can’t win future statewide contests by tanking in the fast-growing suburbs, where Trump’s middling approval ratings and a more diverse electorate is reshaping political debate,” wrote the Atlanta Journal- Constitution’s Greg Bluestein.

Copyright @ 2019 The Almanac of American Politics. This feature was provided by and is included in The Almanac of American Politics 2020 edition set to be released August 2019. To learn more about this publication or purchase a copy, visit www.almanacofamericanpolitics.com.

Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.


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