Will 2020 be rural Georgia’s last stand?
This year’s presidential election — and tomorrow’s election-day voting — is shaping up as another rematch in the long-running political war between urban and rural Georgia. The big question is whether rural Georgia can hold off Metro Atlanta’s rising urban and suburban tide one more time.
While demographics are clearly working against the state’s rural regions, they have managed to hang on at least until now; in 2018, rural voters turned out in bigger droves than their urban counterparts and dragged Brian Kemp across the finish line and into the governor’s office.
There’s little evidence in this year’s political tea leaves to suggest that rural Georgia’s task has gotten any easier. One of the biggest clues has been President Trump’s own campaign strategy. The fact that he’s been here twice in the past two weeks makes it clear that Georgia is indeed in play (as do virtually all the recent state polls), but it’s the way he’s campaigned here that’s the dead give-away.
Instead of making a public play for the suburban women whose votes he publicly covets, he’s gone instead to Macon and Rome, regional communities that anchor surrounding rural areas that gave him overwhelming majorities in 2016. Clearly, Trump’s strategic objective is to juice his rural base and maximize its turnout, not to try to reclaim suburbs that may be slipping away.
Beyond Trump’s own campaign tactics, the most attention-getting data point I’ve found is that the 29 counties that voted for Democrat Stacey Abrams in 2018 have cast 345,304 more absentee and in-person early votes than voters in the 130 largely rural counties that sided with Kemp. I mined that figure from the excellent georgiavotes.com website, which pulls data from the Georgia Secretary of State’s website and organizes it for easy public consumption.
It’s difficult (for me, at least) to read those numbers in any way except that the Democratic presidential nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, has probably built up a pretty good advantage in the early vote and will begin tomorrow morning with a fair Georgia lead over Trump. The question for Trump’s rural Georgia supporters is whether they can replicate the 2018 turnout advantage and overcome what looks like an early Biden wave.
In 2018, the 130 largely rural counties that went for Kemp produced higher turnouts than the Abrams counties in both the early vote and the total vote. In the early vote, the Kemp counties produced 34.3 percent of their eligible vote versus 31.7 percent for the Abrams counties; by the time all the votes were tallied, the Kemp counties’ turnout was 62.1 percent versus 60.6 for the Abrams counties. That difference was arguably decisive.
So far this year, the Democrats appear to be doing a good bit better: the early vote turnout in the 29 Abrams counties (driven no doubt by Covid-19 concerns as well as heightened interest in the presidential race) is 51.8 percent versus 52.4 percent in the Kemp counties — a mere half-point difference.
Even with the improved numbers, Biden and the Democrats face some notable soft spots. One problem that seems to be repeating itself is the turnout performance difference between Metro Atlanta’s white north side and black south side.
For example, in the 2018 governor’s race, heavily white and overwhelmingly Republican Forsyth County, on Metro Atlanta’s northern edge, turned out 64.9 percent of its registered voters and gave Kemp 70.6 percent of those votes; the south side’s Clayton County, heavily black and Abrams’s strongest county, delivered only 54.4 percent of its available vote.
This year, the divide is even bigger so far: 67.6 percent of Forsyth’s registered voters have cast their ballots versus only 43.6 percent Clayton County’s. Other heavily-black, Democratic counties also seem to be under-performing in the early vote: Bibb County at 46 percent; Dougherty, 33.5 percent, and Richmond, 43.8 percent, among others.
A final question is whether the state will continue the red-to-blue shift that has been taking place over the past several election cycles, and all these challenges are, of course, intertwined. Democrats lost Georgia by five points in the 2016 presidential race and by less than two in the governor’s race in 2018. If they can gain that much ground again this year, Biden will carry Georgia and win its 16 electoral votes. Pumping up those turnout percentages in Bibb, Dougherty and Richmond, et al, is probably key to that.
(c) Trouble in God’s Country 2020