Georgia takes center stage: The Almanac of American Politics 2022 chapter on the state
(A note from Tom: This month’s publication of The Almanac of American Politics 2022 marks 50 years since the publication of the 1972 almanac. When the Saporta Report published the 2020 almanac’s Georgia chapter two years ago, I called it a sort of time-lapse photo of the American political landscape, midway between journalism and history. So it is with this year’s chapter. Even if you think you know Georgia, you’re likely to learn something from this. The 2022 Almanac of American Politics 50tth Commemorative Edition can be purchased online at https://www.thealmanacofamericanpolitics.com/ or by calling 1-888-265-0600. Use the code “15AAP2022” for a 15% discount during check-out.)
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 in 2020, Democrats surged not only to a victory in the presidential race but also in two Senate runoffs, a clear sign that changing views among suburban voters and the state’s shifting demographics have turned Georgia into a highly competitive state.
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 Oglethorpe, a humanitarian, forbade slavery, but the settlers rebelled and repealed his ban in 1750.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—the biggest state by area—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, growing from 3.1 million people in 1990 to 4.2 million in 2000 and just over 6 million in 2019. The Atlanta Regional Commission projects that by 2050, greater Atlanta will see its population rise to 8.6 million. Georgia’s median income is about $4,000 below the national average, but it exceeds that of its regional neighbors save Virginia and Texas.
Even before its demographic surge, Atlanta was in many ways the center of the South. Prior to the Civil War, the city, 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 seal 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 1939 movie (and has more recently been spurned for its sympathetic portrayal of the antebellum South). 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. 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, later moved most of its operations elsewhere, and Coke has recently pursued rounds of local belt-tightening as the company grapples with health concerns that have lowered consumption of sugary drinks.) 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, including such productions as Black Panther, The Walking Dead, and Ozark (in which Georgia stands in for Missouri). Georgia’s film industry has remained strong, even as the state’s $870 million tax-credit allowance has faced second-guessing by politicians, and as Hollywood contemplated a boycott after the state passed a “fetal heartbeat” law.
Today, Georgia is 31 percent Black, 10 percent Hispanic and 4 percent Asian. That’s the third highest African-American percentage of any state (behind Mississippi and Louisiana) and the second lowest percentage of whites east of the Mississippi River (after Maryland). Seven of the nation’s 10 counties with the fastest-growing Black populations are near Atlanta, according to the Pew Research Center. The state has seen faster Hispanic population growth than any of the 10 states with the largest Hispanic populations. Projections from the Atlanta Regional Commission find that the Atlanta area’s white population is set to fall from 47.5 percent in 2015 to 31 percent in 2050. More than one 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 LGBTQ 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 hubs of Korean, Cuban, Indian, Vietnamese and Mexican residents, such as Duluth, where Asians account for more than a quarter of the population; non- white children account for three of every four students in Gwinnett’s 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. But in 2020, two incidents in Georgia helped fuel outrage not just locally but nationally: the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man in Brunswick, after three white men pursued him, thinking he was a break-in suspect, and the Atlanta police shooting of another Black man, Rayshard Brooks, who was shot while fleeing after he had fallen asleep in a Wendy’s drive-through lane. Then, in March 2021, a white shooter killed eight people, including six Asian American women, in a rampage at massage parlors.
Meanwhile, Georgia’s rural outstate regions have struggled. Georgia has the third-highest rate of uninsured residents in the nation, trailing only Texas and Oklahoma. This in turn has led to a rash of rural hospital closures. Nine counties, mostly in southern Georgia, lack practicing physicians, the president of the Georgia Alliance of Community Hospitals told the New Yorker, while 18 counties have no family-practice doctors, 32 have no internal-medicine doctors, and 76 counties have no obgyns. Georgia’s increasingly efficient agriculture sector ranks high in the production of broilers, pecans, cotton, and peanuts (today’s output would put Jimmy Carter’s to shame) but many farmers were hit hard by Hurricanes Irma in 2017 and Michael in 2018, and Georgia farmers have been engaged in a long-running battle with Florida over water rights. In 2021, the justices unanimously handed Georgia a victory, rejecting Florida’s claim that its northern neighbor has been using too much water.
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 with the emergence of 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, for a long historical moment, 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 for the next three elections; Republican presidential nominees carried it with between 52 percent and 58 percent of the vote. 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.
But the changing demographics and partisan trends in the Trump era changed everything. 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 eight to 13 points higher than Barack Obama four years earlier. Then, in the 2018 midterms, Georgia was one of the nation’s marquee battlegrounds, thanks to its gubernatorial race between Republican Brian Kemp, who ran as a Trump acolyte, and Democrat Stacey Abrams, an African-American former state House minority leader. After gubernatorial elections in 2010 and 2014 saw largely static turnout, the two nominees whipped their bases into gear in 2018. In the end, it wasn’t enough for Abrams to win, but the GOP’s gubernatorial margin continued to shrink—from 10 points in 2010 to eight points in 2014 to 1.4 points in 2018, or fewer than 55,000 votes. Continuing recent trends, the GOP cleaned up in rural areas, while Abrams trounced Kemp in the once-Republican Atlanta suburbs.
Such developments made it clear from the start of the 2020 campaign that Georgia would be a bona fide battleground state. After her close loss, Abrams continued to energize the grassroots and register voters, especially Black voters, who had accounted for a disproportionate share of the state’s recent increases in the voting electorate. Abrams’ effort ran up against Republican attempts to purge the rolls of inactive voters and other initiatives that critics, contrary to the record voter turnout, said made voting harder for minorities. The primary election on June 9, 2020, was notable for its long lines and general confusion at polling places, especially in urban locales; it was deemed a “complete meltdown” by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and became a warning sign for the rest of the nation as officials grappled with the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on election administration.
Both Trump and Biden campaigned in the state, as did Obama, even though it wasn’t essential for Biden’s electoral map. Biden also got help from Abrams and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, both of whom made his list of potential vice presidential picks. In the end, Biden turned
Clinton’s five-point deficit into a victory of fewer than 12,000 votes. While Trump increased his vote total by 18 percent in the state, Biden increased his by 32 percent over what Clinton achieved. Like Clinton, Biden won the nine core counties of the Atlanta area, but he prevailed by even bigger margins. Biden improved on Clinton’s winning margins by 12 points in Gwinnett, 14 points in Cobb, 15 points in Rockdale, and 17 points in Henry, while also squeezing a few more points out of overwhelmingly Democratic Fulton and DeKalb counties. “If you jumped into a car at the state capitol, it would take nearly a half-hour’s drive, in any direction, to find a precinct won by Trump,” The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel wrote. Trump increased his margins in Whiter, more rural parts of the state and flipped one county Clinton had won, Burke (Waynesboro) in east-central Georgia. However, “there simply weren’t enough Republican votes in rural Georgia to make up for those Democratic gains,” Weigel wrote.
Still, Biden’s victory was narrow, and even after a hand-recount confirmed it, the margin was close enough to prompt Trump to try to strong-arm Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, Kemp, and other Georgia officials to “find” enough votes to put him over the top.
Trump’s obsession with losing the state may have contributed to the GOP’s loss in the two Jan. 5 Senate runoffs, to Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock: Even when stumping for GOP Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, Trump focused more on his own loss than the Senate runoff, on which Senate control depended. Warnock, a prominent Black pastor from King’s Atlanta church, and his allies were able to supercharge Black turnout, including voters in rural areas far from Atlanta; Trump’s support, for his part, dipped modestly in some of his strongest regions. The results suggested that while Georgia has not yet become a blue state—every non-federal statewide elected official remains in GOP hands—many of those statewide contests should be competitive in 2022, when Kemp faces reelection, and when Trump will no longer be on the ballot. A wild card will be whether the voting bill passed the GOP and signed by Kemp will change turnout patterns.