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Stacey Abrams pursues a risky campaign strategy

It’s increasingly clear that Stacey Abrams is pursuing a high-risk – dare I say foolhardy? – strategy in her quest for the office of Georgia governor. 

She’s actually asking voters to think.

What I haven’t been able to decide is whether this was her plan all along?  Or if she backed herself into a corner with her “inelegant” (as she later put it) statement that Georgia is “the worst state” in which to live?

Abrams, the Democratic Party’s gubernatorial nominee, was complaining at an event in May about incumbent Republican Governor Brian Kemp’s incessant invocation of an economic development trade publication’s ranking of Georgia as “the top state for doing business” when she flipped that on its head and offered up the “worst state in the country to live” comment.

The statement was widely panned by Kemp and some in the media as a gaffe.  In a Facebook thread, one politically savvy friend bluntly criticized it as “a dumb, unforced error.”  Another, the estimable Bill Cotterell, long ago UPI’s man at the Georgia State Capitol and now a semi-retired political columnist for The Tallahassee Democrat, offered a more complete explanation.  “My kid might be ugly,” he said, “but you’re not going to win my vote by proving it to me.“

Probably not, but Abrams seems determined to give it her best shot – and for what it’s worth, she’s no stranger to novel political strategies.  When she first took on Kemp four years ago, she came closer to winning than any Democrat in the current millennium by running as an unapologetic progressive.  Four years earlier, Jason Carter and Michelle Nunn, progeny of the state’s two leading Democratic families, got clobbered by running GOP lite campaigns for governor and U.S. Senate.

The Kemp camp, meanwhile, has been positively and predictably gleeful in its reactions – but in the process, it may have overreached.  Kemp and his minions delighted in whacking Abrams about the head and shoulders with press statements and tweets. “Stacey Abrams may think differently,” Kemp harrumphed on Twitter, “but I believe Georgia is the best state to live, work, and raise a family.” To have done less would have been political malpractice, a felony in Georgia.

But then they took it a step further and focused their first ad of the campaign on the issue.  The 30-second spot features Abrams making her “inelegant” statement followed by a handful of headlines favorable to Kemp, after which a narrator declares that Kemp has “kept Georgia the best place to live.”

Really?   

Here, we should pause to recognize the difference in campaign strategies.  If Abrams is asking voters to think, Kemp is asking them not to; instead, he wants them to feel

For what it’s worth, his is the more traditional and time-tested approach.  Voters arguably vote their hearts far more than their heads, and appealing to their sense of pride (“best place to live”) no doubt works better in that regard than insulting them (“worst place to live”).

But Kemp’s “best place to live” claim is such an overreach that it merits a TIGC fact-check, and we give it a half-dozen Pinocchios and a pair of flaming tighty-whities.  First, the ad’s messaging logic (for lack of a better word) merits scrutiny (not to mention a belly laugh).  After spotlighting Abrams’s “worst state” comment, the ad features a montage of positive business headlines that are then used as a springboard to the “best place to live” claim.

A strong local economy is obviously critical to a community’s overall viability, but economic development doesn’t automatically lead to quality-of-life improvements and the two don’t always go hand in hand. Further, it seems worth noting that the much-vaunted business ranking from Area Development magazine focuses exclusively on business considerations and does not, as nearly as TIGC has been able to discern, factor in quality-of-life metrics.

Indeed, at least one of the key categories Area Development uses to measure and compare the 50 states seems to be at odds with improving the economic livelihood of individual Georgia citizens. More than 30 years ago, the General Assembly created a job tax credit program that measured the economic standing of Georgia’s counties by three key metrics — unemployment, poverty, and per capita income. Counties that scored poorly by those measures would be targeted with generous tax credits to encourage businesses to set up shop and create jobs in them.

Through the 1980s, ’90s, and early 2000s, Georgia made remarkable progress on arguably the most important of those three — per capita income (as TIGC has documented in previous posts, here, here, and here). Between 1980 and the end of the century, the state’s average PCI rose from 84.5 percent of the national average to 95 percent, and our rank among the 50 states climbed from 38th to 24th.

In the first decade of the current century, Georgia’s PCI performance fell back to 1980 levels; as of 2010, our average PCI was 85.6 percent of the national average and we ranked 40th among the 50 states. That reversal of fortune coincided with the transition of political power at the State Capitol from Democrat to Republican. While it’s difficult to determine cause and effect, the state’s first GOP governor in modern times, Sonny Perdue, presided during his eight years in office over a 15-place drop in the national rankings. Only one state suffered a bigger drop during that same period; Delaware fell 16 places.

Since then, the state’s PCI performance has been relatively static, bobbing up and down slightly first under Governor Nathan Deal and now under Kemp. As of the end of 2020, Kemp’s second year in office, the state’s average PCI was up to 87 percent of the national average but our rank remained 40th among the 50 states.

In Area Development’s view, that’s apparently not a bad thing. Georgia, for instance, tied with Texas for the No. 1 spot in a category called “Competitive Labor Market,” about which the magazine said, in part: “Companies choosing locations in Georgia and Texas appreciate the fact that they both have wages below the average in more than half of all other states … “

That wasn’t true when the Republicans came to power, but it certainly is now — with the ironic consequence that Georgia’s claim to being the No. 1 state for business is predicated in part on the fact that its citizens earn less on average than their counterparts in 39 other states.

Area Development, however, isn’t the only media outlet that ranks states for their overall business environment. CNBC has been doing the same thing since 2007, and Georgia generally fares well in its rankings as well; the state finished in CNBC’s Top 10 every year except 2008 and claimed 1st place in 2014.

CNBC’s methodology has evolved over time, however, and recently it added a category it calls “Life, Health & Inclusion.” Here, the news for Georgia is not so good.

CNBC even published an online sidebar under the headline “These 10 states are America’s worst places to live in 2021.” In this “Life, Health & Inclusion” category, Georgia got an “F” and finished 6th — that is, as the 6th worst place to live in America. Behind Alabama.

Let me repeat that: Behind Alabama.

The challenge for Abrams is in communicating this kind of information in ways that rile voters up without turning them off. If Kemp is trying to make voters feel good about Georgia as a place to live, Abrams should be trying to make them mad. So far, I’m not sure she’s accomplishing that. Most of her critiques (that I’ve seen) have focused on the state as a whole.

She’s up on social media, for example, with an ad that spotlights 82 Georgia counties that don’t have any OB/GYNs and another (below right) that lists the state’s poor ranking in a number of health-related categories. Whether that kind of messaging cuts through remains to be seen. I don’t have the benefit of any polling data, but I’m skeptical that statewide numbers resonate at local levels.

Take, for example, Brantley County. Located in deep southeast Georgia, Brantley County ranks near the bottom of every national economic, educational, and health analysis I’ve conducted. Nationally, it ranks in the bottom one percent of U.S. counties for per capita income, the bottom five percent for educational attainment, and the bottom 13 percent for premature death — and it’s actually doing better than a fair number of its neighboring rural Georgia counties.

But the thing that distinguishes Brantley County is that it’s the most Republican county in the entire state. In the 2016 presidential election, Brantley County voters gave Donald Trump 88 percent of their vote. In the governor’s race two years later, they went for Kemp by an even bigger margin — 91.3 percent to 8.1 percent for Abrams. In the 2020 presidential race, they sided 10-to-1 with Trump: 90.3 percent for the incumbent Republican to 9.0 percent for Joe Biden.

If voters anywhere ought to be frustrated with their economic, education, and health situations, you’d think it would be the folks in Brantley County — especially since they’ve been losing ground in recent years. In 2002, the last year a Democrat occupied the governor’s office, its average PCI was 63.3 percent of the national average; in 2020, the latest year for which data is available, Brantley’s average PCI was down to 50.4 percent of the national average.

Kemp, of course, is at no risk of losing Brantley County, but if Abrams succeeds at getting even a small fraction of voters there and in other beleaguered blood-red counties to think about something other than the party label, it just might make a difference.

(c) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2022

Georgia’s 2021 births rebound slightly from the Covid dip, but still don’t match pre-Covid numbers

The Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) is up with its 2021 county-level birth data and the good news is that the number of births last year rebounded a bit from the Covid dip in 2020. The less than good news is that the rebound was well short of the 2019 numbers and it looks like the state’s long-running baby bust is continuing.

Altogether, Georgia recorded 123,971 new births in 2021 — up nearly 1,600 from 2020 but still nearly 2,300 under pre-Covid’s 2019 totals. Nearly 98 percent of those added births took place generally north of the gnat line, in TIGC’s 12-county Metro Atlanta region or its 41-county North Georgia territory. Combined, the 106 counties in Georgia’s Middle Georgia, South Georgia and Coastal Georgia regions added only 38 births to their 2020 totals.

However, those high-level numbers mask some interesting racial and localized differences — principally a big difference in the number of White and Black births. Statewide, White births were up 2,742 in 2021, an increase of 4.0 percent over 2020 and, in fact, a slight increase over 2019. Black births, however, were down 1,422, or 3.1 percent versus 2020.

This represents something of a change from recent years, although it’s impossible to know whether it’s simply a one-year anomaly or perhaps the beginning of a trend. Whites, with a larger population in Georgia, have always produced more births than Blacks, but the trend lines have moved in rough parallel throughout the quarter-century for which DPH has data — with a couple of notable exceptions.

As the graph below shows, between 1994 and 2006, the gap between White and Black births had gradually widened — peaking at about 45,000 for several years in the early 2000s. But White births declined dramatically in 2007 and ’08, probably at least partly due to the Great Recession, and then continued to decline at a slower pace for several years. Black births also declined, although not as precipitously, with the result that the difference in the number of White and Black births has narrowed dramatically in recent years. That difference peaked at 45,553 in 2004; by 2020, it had been cut in half, down to 22,563.

Of the total 123,971 births recorded in Georgia last year, just under two-thirds took place in the 53 counties that comprise TIGC’s Metro Atlanta and North Georgia regions — 81,421 versus the 42,550 in the 106 counties in TIGC’s Middle, South and Coastal Georgia regions.

This map illustrates the percentage change in the number of births for each county. The darker the green, the greater the increase; the darker the red, the greater the decline. As a region, Southwest Georgia suffered the biggest drop in the number of births, but the strip of northwest Georgia counties along the Alabama line wasn’t far behind.

These numbers — in combination with the aforementioned fact that nearly 98 percent of the births over and above 2020’s totals took place in Metro Atlanta and North Georgia — are in line with the long-running shift in population to the northern half of the state.

The 2021 numbers include some unexpected anomalies. The largest percentage increase in births, for instance, took place in tiny Montgomery County, a slice-of-pie-shaped county in southeast Georgia. The number of births there increased to 124 from 87, an increase of 37, or 42.5 percent. About three hours to the west, Calhoun County was at the opposite end of the spectrum. The number of births there fell to 31 from 52, a drop of 40.4 percent.

Another somewhat surprising development is the unbroken string of counties along the Alabama line in northwest Georgia that saw the number of births fall in 2021 — Dade, Walker, Chattooga, Floyd, Polk, Haralson, Carroll and Heard on the Alabama line, plus Whitfield and Gordon just to their east.

For several years now, TIGC has monitored county-level births and deaths and reported on the rising number of Georgia counties recording more deaths than births. Last year, that number jumped to 118 counties, up from 78 in 2019, thanks in part to Covid. The state’s county-level mortality data for 2021 should be published by DPH in July or August.

(c) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2022

Will the 2022 governor’s race give us an actual debate about the trouble in God’s country?

Now that David Alfred Perdue’s bloodied political corpse has been dispatched to its final resting place at Sea Island (without, we can probably surmise, even a brief opportunity to lie in state at Mar-a-Lago), the long-awaited gubernatorial heavyweight rematch between Brian Kemp, the incumbent Republican, and Democratic Party challenger Stacey Abrams can begin in earnest. 

It’s arguably been underway for a while now.  Early last week, even before the party primaries, the Kemp camp fired a salvo at Abrams for what they and some in the media called a “gaffe” – a statement that she was weary of listening to Kemp brag about Georgia being the No. 1 state in which to do business while it was “the worst state in the country to live.”

I’ll offer a contrarian view.

Georgia as a whole may not deserve the “worst place to live” label, but Rural Georgia arguably does.  In fact, much of Republican Georgia would qualify for that title.

Abrams has since acknowledged her statement was “inelegant” but she’s doubled down on her central point – and she’s right to do so.  In the process, she may have set in motion a long-overdue gubernatorial debate over what to do about the trouble in God’s country.

Let’s take a look at the 105 rural Georgia counties* with populations of less than 35,000. 

105 Georgia counties have populations of less than 35,000 people. See below for complete list.

Combined, these counties had an average 2020 per capita income (PCI) of $39,027.  That’s just 65.6 percent of the national average** and $3,103 less than Mississippi, which is the actual state at the bottom of the nation’s 2020 PCI heap, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA).  Per capita income in the other 54 Georgia counties was $54,183, or 91 percent of the national average.

Those 105 counties, according to Census Bureau data for the years 2015-2019, were home to more high school dropouts than college graduates – 210,748 to 184,399.  Here again, rural Georgia makes Mississippi look good: the Magnolia State actually has more college graduates than high school dropouts – 435,153 versus 306,105. 

What about health status, you say?  Glad you asked.  The 2020 premature death rate for these 105 counties comes in at a third world number: 12,148 years of potential life lost before age 75 per every 100,000 people in those 105 counties.   That’s nearly 50 percent worse than the premature death rate for the rest of Georgia: 8,304. 

It’s also significantly worse than the actual states at the bottom of the national list.  According to the latest data from County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, Mississippi is dead last with a YPLL 75 rate of 11,324 and Alabama, third from the bottom, has a comparatively stellar rate of 10,350.  (Here, I should acknowledge I’m comparing slightly different sizes of apples.  I’m pulling the Georgia county data from the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) while relying on County Health Rankings for other state-level data.  The numbers will vary slightly, but not a great deal.)

(For what it’s worth, I’d suggest Abrams should directly critique the underpinnings of the state’s much-vaunted claim to being the No. 1 state in which to do business, but I’ll save that for another post.)

It’s also worth noting, as I suggested above, that Rural Georgia is overwhelmingly Republican.  Those 105 counties combined gave Kemp 71 percent of their vote to 28 percent for Abrams in the 2018 governor’s race, and things haven’t changed much since then.  They went 70 percent for Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.

On the basis of those numbers alone, Abrams could be forgiven if she didn’t bother campaigning or investing campaign resources outside Metro Atlanta and other Democratic strongholds around the state.  Every minute or dollar she spends trying to win a new vote in, say, Glascock County is a minute or dollar she won’t have to turn out a sure vote in Metro Atlanta.

But she is at least making a show of going after Rural Georgia’s votes.  She actually kicked off her campaign in Cuthbert, Ga.  I’ve been to Cuthbert.  It’s not easy to get there.  One route suggested by Google Maps is to cross over into Alabama, drive south to Eufaula, and turn left.

Further, she has branded her campaign “One Georgia” and regularly peppers her public remarks with references to rural Georgia.  Her campaign website includes a decent section on “Rural Revitalization” that spells out pledges to expand Medicaid (which Kemp and his Republican predecessor, Nathan Deal, have refused to do, despite polls showing broad public support for it), invest in rural broadband and overhaul rural education funding formulas.

Still, it has to be said that her bet on rural Georgia is a long shot and that Kemp goes into the campaign as a prohibitive favorite.  I could find no comparable language on rural policy on his campaign website, but his administration’s recent economic development wins (Rivian, Aspen Aerogels, and now Hyundai) may be a more than sufficient response.  Kemp also begins the General Election campaign as a political giant-killer.  He beat Perdue by a stunning 52 percentage points and knee-capped Donald J. Trump in the process, perhaps crippling him not just in Georgia but nationally.

But even if Abrams fails to cut into the GOP’s rural stronghold and comes up short again, she appears certain to force a long-overdue political discussion about the trouble in God’s country – and that will be no small public service.

*Georgia counties with populations of fewer than 35,000 people: Appling Atkinson Bacon Baker Banks Ben Hill Berrien Bleckley Brantley Brooks Burke Butts Calhoun Candler Charlton Chattahoochee Chattooga Clay Clinch Cook Crawford Crisp Dade Dawson Decatur Dodge Dooly Early Echols Elbert Emanuel Evans Fannin Franklin Gilmer Glascock Grady Greene Hancock Haralson Hart Heard Irwin Jasper Jeff Davis Jefferson Jenkins Johnson Jones Lamar Lanier Lee Lincoln Long Lumpkin Macon Madison Marion McDuffie McIntosh Meriwether Miller Mitchell Monroe Montgomery Morgan Oglethorpe Peach Pickens Pierce Pike Pulaski Putnam Quitman Rabun Randolph Schley Screven Seminole Stephens Stewart Sumter Talbot Taliaferro Tattnall Taylor Telfair Terrell Toombs Towns Treutlen Turner Twiggs Union Upson Warren Washington Wayne Webster Wheeler White Wilcox Wilkes Wilkinson Worth

** The original version of this post reported that the average 2020 per capita income for the 105 counties listed above was 61 percent of the national average. That was incorrect. The correct figure was 65.6 percent. The copy above has been corrected.

(C) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2022

Chapter III in my ongoing post-mortem of Georgia’s PCI performance from 1980-2020

Late last year, I posted two pieces about Georgia’s per capita income (PCI) performance.  I hadn’t intended to do that.  My original objective had been to take a quick look at a new release of 2020 PCI data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), knock out a quick one-off, and move on. 

But one thing I always try to do, especially when I’m working with a national dataset, is put Georgia’s numbers into a national context.  When I did that with this latest batch of BEA data, I was surprised to find that Georgia had more people and counties at the bottom of the national PCI pile than any other state in the nation.

The straight blue line at the 100% mark represents the national average for per capita income (PCI). The orange line represents Georgia’s performance relative to that national average, based on data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA).

That became the lede of the first piece.  It also got my curiosity up, and I started backtracking through 50 years of BEA data to see if I could figure out what was happening.  That resulted in the discovery of what I described, in the second piece, as Georgia’s 40-year PCI roller-coaster ride.  The state made massive, almost unmatched gains during the final 20 years of the last century, then surrendered all those gains during the early part of this century.

As a long-ago political journalist (and now an aging political junkie), I couldn’t help but notice how the state’s PCI roller-coaster ride matched up against the state’s political timescale.  All the gains took place under Democratic governors; all the losses followed under Republicans.  I deliberately stopped short of ascribing credit or blame (and still do), but the pattern was (and still is) difficult to ignore.

The political question aside, I began to think the rise and fall of Georgia’s PCI trendlines is a significant part of the overall TIGC story — maybe a key driver in fueling the ongoing divide between urban and rural Georgia and, especially, Metro Atlanta and the rest of the state. I’ve since come to view the story as something of an economics and maybe political cold case, and I’ve spent an embarrassing amount of time researching various angles over the past few months (which is one reason I haven’t posted much lately).

Among other things, I began to pick the brains of various contacts who moved in political and economic development circles during that 40-year span; found and plowed through a couple of dozen relevant reports and articles, and took several deep dives into other pots of economic data for the 40-year period.

The result of that research is a couple of binders full of material and several storylines that are tough to bring together in a single piece and would be too long for a blog post even if I did. As a result, I’ve decided to dribble it out in a series of brain dumps that should, if nothing else, help me clear my head so that I can move on to other subjects (several of which have been stacking up over the past couple of months).

Brain Dump No. 1 follows.

———-

One of the first things I learned in my research is that the 40-year PCI roller-coaster ride I reported on in December wasn’t exactly breaking news.

It turns out that the Fiscal Research Center (FRC) at Georgia State University had been monitoring the same metrics (and others) for a while. In September 2013, the FRC published a 26-page report by Professor David L. Sjoquist that, among other findings, found essentially the same roller-coaster pattern I did late last year.

(I say “essentially” because there appear to be some very minor differences in some of the data Professor Sjoquist and his team found in 2013 versus what I found late last year.  I suspect these differences owe to periodic revisions and refinements BEA (which was also Sjoquist’s source) makes to its data.)

The Sjoquist report looked at population, employment, and income trends and noted, broadly, that the state’s growth rates appeared to be slowing.  It also mused about various potential causes for these trends, including poor public schools, the loss of jobs to other countries, bad traffic, even a “leadership vacuum” in the business community (which had indeed been undergoing a transition from an era dominated by homegrown barons like Robert Woodruff, Mills B. Lane and Tom Cousins to a new generation of imported CEOs who headed a wave of new Fortune 500 companies putting down stakes in Metro Atlanta). 

The closest it came to pondering the efforts of the state’s gubernatorial administrations was this bullet point in a section of the report focused on employment trends:

“Georgia may be pursuing the wrong economic development strategy, which currently seems to be focused on providing tax incentives. Perhaps a strategy that focused more on providing a better labor force, infrastructure, and amenities would result in greater net job growth.”

Nor did the FRC take note of the fact that the wind had gone out of the state’s economic sails only after the GOP took over the state capitol.  And, again, that may indeed have been coincidental.  Georgia’s economy was red hot through much of the 1980s and ‘90s, and nothing lasts forever. At least one important figure did seem to think gubernatorial focus was relevant to the state’s economic focus, however.

George Berry, who served as commissioner of the Department of Industry, Trade & Tourism (now Economic Development) under Governor Joe Frank Harris during the 1980s, put a bright spotlight on PCI in a guest column for Georgia Trend magazine in January 2011. Governor Sonny Perdue, the state’s first GOP governor in a century, was leaving office and his successor, Republican Nathan Deal, was about to begin his first term. 

In that piece, Berry wrote:

“As Gov. Nathan Deal begins his administration, he would do well to consider the over-arching accomplishment that defines Georgia’s advancement over the last half century: the progress we have made toward economic parity with the rest of the nation.

“That progress can be best defined by comparing the per capita income of Georgians to that of citizens of other states.

“For decades Georgians lagged in this elemental measure.  As late as the onset of World War II, we were barely at 60 percent of the national average per capita income.  This is not an abstract but rather an intensely personal statistic.  It measures how much education one can afford, how much healthcare one receives, whether one can take his children to a dentist and even how many culturally enriching experiences one can have.”

Berry concluded his column with this: “If our new governor can improve this vital statistic, he will be assured of a successful administration.  Because it is a measure easily calculated, everyone can keep score.  It is in all of our best interests that Gov. Deal be the one to celebrate that day when Georgia finally achieves 100 percent of the national average per capita income.”

(I wrote about Berry in this post nearly a year ago, and I’ll have more to say about his focus on PCI in another of these brain dumps.)

As things worked out, Georgia’s PCI performance under Deal was basically flat.  It gained a little ground in 2011, suffered a two-point drop in 2012, and then made slow but steady progress until the end of Deal’s second term in 2018.  At that point, Georgia’s average PCI stood at 86.7 percent of the national average; in Governor Brian Kemp’s first two years in office, that number ticked up ever-so-slightly to 87.0 percent – just under the 87.1 percent figure the state posted at the end of Joe Frank Harris’s first year in office.

Thus endeth Brain Dump No. 1.

Watch this space.

               

Aspen Aerogels, Bulloch County, and Randy Cardoza’s theory of concentric circles

A couple of stories in this morning’s AJC merit a quick post. One is the lead story on page 1 about the state adding a whopping 34,100 jobs in February. The story, by Michael Kanell, said that 84 percent of the new jobs were in Atlanta. By my arithmetic, that’s 28,644 jobs for Atlanta, leaving 5,456 for the rest of the state.

The AJC story didn’t define “Atlanta,” but my best guess is that it refers to the 10-county Atlanta Region Commission (ARC) region. That would mean the 5,456 jobs were divvied up between the remaining 149 counties. There’s no huge story here — just further evidence of the continuing concentrations of jobs and economic muscle in Metro Atlanta (no matter how you define it).

The second and in my view more important story was on the News section front — a report, also by Kanell, about a Massachusetts company, Aspen Aerogels, announcing plans to build a $325 million manufacturing plant in Bulloch County to produce special materials that will, as the story put it, “contain potentially disastrous fires in electric vehicles.”

This story resonated with me because it’s in line with a theory I’ve held for a while now that any effort to revitalize rural Georgia will have to begin not in the most-impoverished counties themselves, but in the smaller cities and larger towns scattered across the state. I’ve written a little about the deterioration of some of those cities and towns and talked about the importance of propping them up in a number of presentations I’ve given over the years.

As it happens, Bulloch County is one of the second-tier counties I’ve long thought might play a strategic role in revitalizing its surrounding areas. Located just inland from Savannah and the Georgia coast, it’s one of the few South Georgia counties with an actual economic and population-growth pulse.

Further, it’s home to Georgia Southern University and Ogeechee Technical College, and it has decent educational attainment numbers: 27 percent of its adults hold college degrees and another 33 percent have either technical degrees or some college education, which should make for a solid talent pool for the 250 people Aspen Aerogels plans to hire.

As it also happens, Bulloch County (Statesboro, actually) came up in a conversation I had several days ago with Randy Cardoza, who served as the state’s chief economic development official under three governors. Cardoza headed the Georgia Department of Industry, Trade & Tourism (now Economic Development) under Governors Joe Frank Harris, Zell Miller and Roy Barnes.

Cardoza and I were talking about strategies for pulling the worst-off of Georgia’s counties out of what appear to be economic and population death spirals, and I’m just going to give him the floor here (based on my notes).

“I don’t think there’s enough money at the state … to make any real difference in some of these communities. The only thing I’ve ever been able to rationalize is that you take some group of learned individuals, take the state map and look at it and say, okay, we’ve got the major cities, and those are fine.

“Then we’ve got the Statesboros of the world, the Dublins, that are big enough and have enough infrastructure to survive, and they are surviving, and then you look at all the counties that surround them, that really don’t have anything, and then you get them all together and say if we do more to help Statesboro, then that’s going to benefit Emanuel County and Treutlen and the counties around them, and you build concentric circles around the larger counties and you get the counties around them to understand that (they can benefit) if they participate.

“Instead of everybody having their own little economic development organization … and their own little budget that isn’t hardly big enough to drive to Atlanta to tell anybody what they have or to develop a site, that they set up a special (multi-county) taxing district, find a good piece of land and run utilities. We’re going to make sure the roads are in place, and then the labor will come from those counties plus the others on the other side of them, and then after a while, those circles start overlapping, and you do it to enough different places and there are no areas left out.

“They may not have it in their county, but they’re within a 30-minute drive. They can go to work and they can drive home at night and live on the family farm … and pretty soon those circles will overlap all over the state and we won’t have any bare areas anymore. It’ll take some time, but I don’t know any other way to do it.”

Bulloch County and Aspen Aerogels may provide a good test of the Cardoza theory. Here’s hoping it works.

(c) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2022

KFF’s national analysis matches TIGC’s Georgia findings on the Red-Blue Covid-19 divide

Research spotlighting the differences in how Red and Blue America are responding to virtually every aspect of Covid-19 continues to pile up: the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) went up yesterday with a report declaring that its polling had found “that political partisanship is a stronger national predictor of vaccination than other demographic factors.”

I haven’t attempted to do an analysis that looks at the full spectrum of demographic factors — race, gender, age, etc. — but I certainly don’t doubt KFF’s findings. Its national polling and findings are very much in line with what TIGF has been watching take shape here in Georgia for well over a year, although there are a couple of minor differences.

KFF reports that, nationally, the vaccination gap between counties that voted for Democrat Joe Biden over Republican Donald Trump has widened slightly from about 12 percent toward the end of last year to 13.2 percent as of January 11th. Nationally, KFF found, the Biden counties were 65 percent vaccinated as of that date versus 52 percent for the Trump counties.

Here in Georgia, as of data published yesterday (January 19th) by the state Department of Public Health (DPH), the split was right at 10 points — 51.9 percent in the Biden counties to 42.0 percent in the Trump counties — and that’s about what it’s been for the past few months.

In terms of raw numbers, however, the Biden counties continue to grow their advantage of vaccinated and virus-resistant residents. As of yesterday, the Biden counties had fully vaccinated just shy of 875,000 more people than the Trump counties — 2.97 million to 2.09 million. Lately the gap has been widening by an average of just over 850 people a day. If that pace continues, the difference will hit one million in mid-June.

Another difference involves booster shots. KFF found that nationally “the share of fully vaccinated individuals who have received a booster dose is the same (37%)” in the Biden and Trump counties. Here in Georgia, the Biden counties are doing better in this category as well: 40 percent of the fully-vaxxed residents of the Biden counties have gotten boosters versus 37.4 percent in the Trump counties.

As regular readers of TIGF know, I’ve been watching a broad range of Covid data through a political prism for more than a year now (see stories here, here, and most recently here). The obvious question is whether the differences between Red and Blue Georgia in vaccination and death rates — which increasingly favor Blue Georgia — will be sufficient to have an impact on this fall’s election outcomes.

Watch this space.

(c) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2022

TIGC takes an early look at the Georgia GOP’s gubernatorial death cage match

Ordinarily the Georgia General Assembly is a shoo-in for top honors in the Best Free Show in Town competition. This year it’ll have stiff competition from the Republican-on-Republican death cage match between incumbent GOP Governor Brian Kemp and former President Donald J. Trump’s handpicked lapdog, ex-U.S. Senator David Perdue.

I wouldn’t place a bet on this race right now if my life depended on it, but I would wager that it’ll bring the schism between Republicans in blood-red rural Georgia and Metro Atlanta’s purplish suburbs and exurbs into sharper focus than ever before.

Picture the Georgia GOP as Humpty Dumpty. The one thing we know for sure is that the Kemp-Perdue match will pull him off the wall and bust him into at least two big pieces. The question is whether either candidate can put him back together.

The differences in these two wings of the party are profound. Rural Georgia Republicans are among the poorest and least well-educated voters on the planet. Their suburban and exurban GOP cousins are pretty much the exact opposite: highly-educated, economically productive, and very affluent. It was among this latter group that Trump arguably lost Georgia in the 2020 presidential race.

Trying to parse those voting blocs right now strikes me as an exercise in futility. My first impulse would be to give Perdue the edge, thanks almost entirely to the Trump endorsement. It was, after all, a Trump endorsement in 2018 that doomed former Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle’s then-frontrunning gubernatorial bid and all but handed the Republican nomination to Kemp. How can Kemp expect to do without that Trumpian support the second time around?

That line of thinking might hold true in rural Georgia, but the ‘burbs are different. I write this without the benefit of any polling data, but I have to wonder if the stink of Trump still clings to Perdue in those climes — and whether Kemp might have the advantage there. I am no Kemp fan, but I think a fair assessment of his first term has to be that it hasn’t been a total disaster (hey, my expectations are pretty low). He’s chalked up some impressive economic development wins and has somehow managed to avoid embarrassing the state on any kind of regular basis.

Okay, okay, he signed S.B. 202 surrounded by a group of mostly over-fed old white guys while sitting under a painting of a former slave plantation, but — let’s face it — that won’t hurt him with most Republicans. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him use it in a campaign ad — especially in the aforementioned rural regions of the state.

*****

One presumed advantage for Kemp is that he’s built up a $12 million campaign war chest. I say “presumed” because recent history tells us a fat bank account is no guarantee of political success in Georgia (See Barnes, Roy, 2002). On top of that, he’s now apparently sitting on a multi-billion dollar state surplus and wants to spend about $1.6 billion in “tax refunds” to all Georgians.

It’s unclear whether he’ll have to report those refunds as campaign expenditures, but, frankly, it’s also unclear whether they’ll do him much political good. Trump’s name was printed on hundreds of billions of dollars in Covid stimulus checks issued in the spring of 2020 — and he promptly went on to lose re-election a few months later.

His successor, Joe Biden, seems to have fared little better with his own stimulus checks (although he did not have his name printed on the checks); based on recent polling data, it’s far from clear that his stimulus program did him much political good.

If the Trump and Biden experience is any guide, Kemp’s taxpayer refunds will be largely forgotten within a few weeks after the checks go out.

For what it’s worth, I think Kemp missed a Nixon-to-China moment. With a few billion spare bucks lying around, why not put it to strategic use and plow it into hardwiring rural Georgia for broadband internet service? Broadband has, after all, been held out by many Republicans as key to rural Georgia’s salvation, and that kind of initiative would have created hundreds if not thousands of jobs and helped build a foundation for economic development in the parts of the state that need it the most.

(c) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2022

Another blogger weighs in on Covid’s political impact

In my last post, I wondered aloud if Covid would kill so many more Republicans than Democrats that it might actually influence Georgia’s election results this fall. Since then, a couple of things have happened.

One is that I’ve gotten a couple of pretty thoughtful notes suggesting my projected body count was low. As a result I’ve been fiddling around with various chunks of data to see if I could come up with a credible way of fleshing out my last estimate.

The second thing that happened is that I got scooped.

Yesterday, Donald G. McNeil, Jr., a former New York Times health and science writer who now blogs about the pandemic, went up with a terrific post that basically did what I was working toward.

McNeil’s whole piece is well worth reading, but here are just a few of the money grafs:

“As of this week, about 1,800 Americans a day are dying of Covid; the C.D.C. expects that number to rise above 2,600.

“Virtually all are adults. If 95 percent were unvaccinated and we assume that 75 percent of those were Trump supporters, that’s 1,300 to 1,900 of his voters being subtracted from the rolls every single day.

Donald Trump lost Arizona by a mere 10,000 votes. He lost Georgia by 12,000, He lost Wisconsin by 21,000. He lost Nevada by 33,000.

Right now, about 60 Arizonans, 36 Georgians, 34 Wisconsinites and 14 Nevadans are dying of Covid each day. Seventy five percent of 95 percent of that would be minus 103 Trump voters per day — just in those four swing states. Week after week. That adds up.”

Obviously, these kinds of projections can get to be a little dicey. There are a lot of moving parts and the data is obviously very fluid. But your humble scribe here at TIGC would wager that data-crunchers and strategists in Democratic and GOP campaigns alike are paying attention to it. It’s going to be a significant part of this fall’s political story.

Stay tuned.

(c) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2022

TIGC tackles the big political question of 2022

This is the time of year when most journalists look back at the previous year and recap its major stories. Here at Trouble in God’s Country, I’ve decided to look to the future and take on the major question that will probably hang over Georgia politics for most of the rest of the year.

Specifically: Will Covid kill so many more Republicans than Democrats that it might actually influence the election results in November?

I know, I know. You’re thinking it’s impossible to know whether Covid victims voted red or blue. You’re probably also thinking the question is rude, insensitive and in poor taste. You may be right on both counts. But bear with me.

I took a first pass at this question back in September. At the time, I was looking at the laissez-faire approach Governor Brian Kemp was taking on Covid and linking that to the differing death and vaccination rates that were already taking shape between the state’s red and blue counties.

My thinking then was that the numbers were interesting but that the possibility that they might actually impact future election results was a little far-fetched.

Now, I think I can report that the possibility is a good bit less far-fetched.

First, one data point I used in that initial report probably understated the difference in the Covid death rates in red and blue Georgia. Back then — on September 10th — the Georgia Department of Public Health’s daily Covid report revealed that the Trump counties had suffered 10,545 deaths from the virus versus 9,468 for the Biden counties.

In that analysis, however, I ignored one column in the Georgia Department of Public Health’s daily reports: “Probable Deaths.” I did that in the interest of being cautious and conservative in the way I analyzed the data. I’ve since decided that was unnecessary and, frankly, wrong. Whatever the final cause of death is ruled to be, those “probable” Covid victims are still dead and, presumably, won’t be able to vote.

Add those “probables” to the tally and the body count in the GOP counties jumped, as of last September 10th, to 12,597 versus 10,361 for the 30 Democratic counties — a difference of 2,236. More interesting, I thought, but probably still not a big enough number to get worked up about.

So, what’s happened since then? Well, as of December 31st, the total Covid death toll in the Trump counties — for confirmed and probable deaths — was 17,119 versus 13,157 in the Biden counties, a difference of 3,962.

The bottom line arithmetic on this is that, for the 112 days between September 10th and the end of the year, the Republican counties, on average, lost an average of just over 40 people (virtually all of them voting age) to Covid versus just under 25 people in the Biden counties — a difference of 15.4 deaths per day.

Extrapolating from December 31st until the November 8th General Election would obviously be a risky exercise, but if — big if, I know — the current trend holds, the gap between the Republican and Democratic counties would swell to more than 8,700.

In a state where former President Trump got himself tape-recorded pleading with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find 11,780 votes” so he could reverse Biden’s Georgia victory, that’s probably a big enough number to merit a little attention.

And, yes, I know: I may be on shaky ground in suggesting that the geographic differences are a proxy for the political split. But at this point there’s enough data available that I’m comfortable doing just that: I’d wager the law of large numbers is kicking in and that, overall, the geographic and political splits are pretty close.

I’d bet that’s especially true once we factor in the vaccination differences. As of September 10th, the Democratic counties had already given two Covid shots to nearly 800,000 more of their residents than had the GOP counties. As of the end of the year, the vaccination advantage in the Biden counties had grown by another 60,000.

This picture comes into much sharper focus when you look at political universes that are overwhelmingly red or blue. Twenty-five largely rural or exurban counties gave Trump at least 80 percent of their 2020 vote; collectively they hit 83.6 percent for the incumbent president. As a point of comparison, urban DeKalb County gave Biden 84.1 percent of its vote.

This table summarizes the key data points.

With a much smaller population, the 25 Trump counties had nonetheless posted 1,129 more Covid deaths than DeKalb County at year’s end; indeed, the collective Covid death rate for those counties is substantially worse than Mississippi’s, which is currently the worst in the nation.

DeKalb, meanwhile, had fully vaccinated 52.6 percent of its population and gotten boosters in the arms of 19 percent. The 25 Trump counties lag badly in both categories.

Will these trends really ripple into Georgia’s political waters and influence the electoral tides this fall? We won’t know until the night of November 8th, but I think the numbers have gotten big enough that they’re worth watching.

And I’ll add this: If the former president has to come back to Georgia this winter in search of more supposedly missing votes, I’ll have a suggestion about where he should look. I’ll also offer one other piece of advice: bring shovels.

GSU Urban Studies Institute urban-rural symposium now available online

Back in November, Georgia State University’s Urban Studies Institute sponsored a day-long symposium on the state’s widening urban-rural divide, and the video is now available online here. Yours truly was the lead-off speaker, but don’t let that scare you off. There were a number of good presentations and a lot of useful information shared.