Political common ground hard to find in Georgia. Literally.
A few days after Georgia’s 2018 elections, I did a quick analysis and wrote a piece positing that the state’s widening urban-rural divide went beyond economics and education and extended to politics. Rural areas seemed to be going more and more Republican while urban and suburban areas were trending more Democratic. Recently I’ve finally gotten around to taking a deeper dive into past election results and can report a couple of things.
The first thing I can report is that the Georgia Republican Party’s rural strategy is now pretty clear. Basically, they’re trying to run off all the Democrats.
The second thing I can report is that they’re doing a damn fine job of it.
I am only about half-joking. One 2018 factoid that I don’t think got nearly enough attention is that Governor Brian Kemp, then the Republican nominee, cracked 90 percent in two rural counties, Glascock (in east-central Georgia, gave him 91.4 percent) and Brantley (deep southeast Georgia, 91.3 percent). That was a first, at least in modern political history. Kemp topped 80 percent in 27 more counties.
Even Donald Trump didn’t do that well; in 2016, he piled up 80 percent vote totals in 24 counties but never got into that 90 percent stratosphere anywhere. Altogether, Kemp won 76 counties with more than 70 percent of the vote; you have to wonder if he wasn’t disappointed with the 36 counties he won with a relatively meager 60 and 70 percent, not to mention the 18 laggard counties that couldn’t deliver more than 50-something percent.
This pattern isn’t exclusively Republican, of course. Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams broke 80 percent in Clayton and DeKalb counties and got into the 70s in three more counties, and the fact that once reliably red suburban counties are now trending blue has been heavily reported and well documented. Indeed, as I was finishing up this research, Jay Bookman went up at the Georgia Recorder with an excellent piece documenting the “velocity” with which heavily populated urban and suburban counties are flipping from red to blue. It’s a good companion to this piece.
It’s worth taking a minute, though, to recognize how and why all this is a big deal. Up until 1990, Democratic landslides were foregone conclusions and anything less than a 25-point win was a little embarrassing. But Republicans were clawing their way to relevance and in the 28 years since then every gubernatorial election but one has been decided by 10 points or less; the only real blowout was Governor Sonny Perdue’s 19-point thrashing of Lt. Governor Mark Taylor in 2006.
But that rough statewide equilibrium has masked tectonic shifts taking place beneath the surface. First of all, Georgia’s Democrats and Republicans have basically swapped geographic territory over the past three decades. In 1990, the state’s popular Democratic lieutenant governor, Zell Miller, carried 141 counties and posted a relatively modest 8.3-point win over Johnny Isakson, at the time a suburban Republican state senator. In 2018, Republican Kemp carried 130 counties in his squeaker over Democrat Abrams, the party’s first female and African-American nominee. Here’s what the raw 1990 and 2018 maps looked like.
That’s only part of the story, however, and it is a bit deceptive. The way those Democratic and Republican voting blocs are assembled has changed radically over the past three decades – and those changes bring the state’s political divide into even sharper relief.
In 1990, Miller beat Isakson 52.9%-to-44.5%, and that spread was generally reflective of what you found around the state. Fifty-three of the state’s 159 counties were decided in that middling 55%-to-45% range. Another 50 counties were carried with less than 60 percent of the vote. In other words, the vast majority of the state’s counties were fairly competitive.
Map the 1990 results based on the extent to which each party carried a county and you get paler shades of blue and red (left). You even get some nearly colorless counties; Miller led in six counties with pluralities in the high 40s (Coweta County tipped his way by two votes out of nearly 12,000 cast). Isakson’s best performance was 61.8 percent, in his home Cobb County. Miller’s best showing was 75.1 percent in Chattahoochee County, one of seven rural counties where he topped 70 percent.
Last year was very different. The closest gubernatorial race at least in modern history – Kemp’s 1.4 percent win over Abrams – was forged on the most divided and hyper-partisan political terrain in the state’s history. Only 15 counties were decided with less than 55 percent of the vote, and only 19 more were won with less than 60 percent.
Put another way, in 1990, 60 percent was the ceiling in 103 of the state’s 159 counties – the most either Miller or Isakson got in any of those counties. In 2018, 60 percent was the floor in 105 counties – the least either Kemp or Abrams got. The pastels that were so prevalent in 1990 were in shorter supply last year, especially the reds (right).
As one illustration of the magnitude of the rural shift, Miller’s native Towns County gave him 73.5 percent of its vote in 1990; last year, it went 81.7 percent for Kemp.
The real question in all this is, of course, so what? How do the shifts and balkanization of the state’s political geography affect policy-making and legislating, especially as it relates to the problems of rural Georgia? I won’t pretend to know, but my hunch is we’re headed for a reckoning.
For now, both the Georgia House of Representatives and State Senate are still safely in Republican hands, and they can be expected to advance and defend rural interests (even at the expense of urban taxpayers).
But the 2020 Census and the subsequent reapportionment will inevitably change that. All the mischief that is likely to occur both in counting the bodies and redrawing the lines won’t be able to completely defy the gravitational pull of Metro Atlanta and Georgia’s other urban communities. Rural Georgia will lose seats, and that will have political and policy consequences.
Exactly what they will be remains to be seen. The one certain thing is that political common ground is, literally, getting harder and harder to find.