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New “Distressed Community” ratings reinforce view that Georgia’s haves and have-nots split along the gnat line

A couple of years ago I stumbled across a Washington, D.C., think tank that calls itself the Economic Innovation Group. EIG’s stated mission is “to advance solutions that empower entrepreneurs and investors to forge a more dynamic economy throughout America,” and the smart folks who work there do an awful lot of terrific research that has helped bring much of Trouble in God’s Country’s work into sharper relief.

One of its most impressive products is what it calls the Distressed Communities Index, or DCI. The DCI is the product of a calculation cooked up by EIG that blends together seven economic data points mined from U.S. Census Bureau data: 1.) the percent of the adult population without a high school diploma; 2.) the housing vacancy rate; 3.) the percentage of prime-age adults not currently in work; 4.) the percentage of the population living below the poverty line; 5,) median household income as a percentage of the state’s median household income; 6.) percent change in the number of local jobs, and 7.) percent change in the number of business establishments.

EIG produces its DCIs at county and zip code levels, and it measures distress on a scale that it describes as from “approaching zero” to 100.0. “Approaching zero” is good; 100.0 is bad. I got my first look at EIG’s 2018 DCI report and did a couple of posts about it (including here and here). Now they’re back with a 2020 edition based on Census Bureau data from the period 2014 through 2018, and I’ve spent the past several days rolling around in the numbers.

I’m not sure there are any huge headlines, but there are more than a few middle-sized and small ones.

Probably the first one to mention is that Oconee County — as it did in the 2018 report — still has the best Distressed Community Index in Georgia. This won’t be a surprise to anybody who follows this sort of thing. Oconee County, located next door to Athens-Clarke County and about an hour from Metro Atlanta, has for several years now been ranked by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA) as having the strongest economy in the state.

The more interesting Oconee County factoid is that its DCI improved significantly between 2018 to 2020 — from .5 to .2 — and that improvement appears to have moved it into the top 10 in the national rankings. While EIG doesn’t include national rankings in its dataset, it is possible to sort all 3,133 U.S. counties by their DCI score and then assign rankings based on that sort. That exercise pushes Oconee County into a tie for fifth place with Douglas County, Colorado, and Sarpy County, Nebraska.

(For those of you who are wondering, the top four counties in EIG’s list are Lincoln County, S.D.; Broomfield County, Colo.; Loudon County, Va.; and Hamilton County, Ind.)

The second medium-sized headline out of the EIG data is that it demonstrates once again the expanse of the gap between Georgia’s geographic haves and have-nots. At the bottom of EIG’s 2018 DCI pile is Wheeler County, which earned a Distressed Community Index of 99.9, and that put it pretty close to the bottom of the national pile as well. It tied with two South Texas counties for 3,129th place out of a total of 3,133 counties.

The only state to have a wider gap between its highest- and lowest-rated counties was Virginia. The aforementioned Loudon County, Va.,– part of the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Area — posted a DCI of 0.1 to tie for second place while, across the state, Buchanan County, Va., scored a perfect 100.0 and tied with its adjoining Appalachian neighbor, McDowell County, W.Va., for last place.

Here in Georgia, Oconee and Wheeler counties are about 150 miles and three hours apart, connected on a north-south line by U.S. 441. But that time and distance only begins to hint at the socioeconomic chasm between the two counties, as this table detailing the metrics that go into EIG’s DCI shows. Wheeler County’s problems are, across the board, obviously orders of magnitude worse than Oconee County’s.

While EIG does not include formal national rankings in its data, it does slice the 3,133 counties into national quintiles — and here, at least, there’s a little good news for Georgia. This time around, Georgia has significantly more counties in the top national quintile and fewer in the bottom quintile than it did in the 2018 report. Put another way, Georgia’s overall DCI profile has arguably improved, at least a little bit.

Predictably, though, the regional distribution of those counties is anything but even. Twenty-five Georgia counties made it into the top national quintile, and 17 of those are located north of the gnat line; three are on the coast, and four are in Middle Georgia. South Georgia’s only placement in the top quintile is Lee County, the affluent white flight county just north of Albany and Dougherty County, and its index score and ranking actually tumbled significantly between the 2018 and 2020 reports. In 2018, it had the ninth-best DCI in the state; in the most recent report, it had fallen to 23rd. Its TIGC-calculated national ranking fell from 180th in 2018 to 598th in 2020, near the bottom of the first quintile.

In contrast, the lowest-ranking county in TIGC’s Metro Atlanta region improved both its DCI and its ranking. Clayton County, the only Metro Atlanta county in the fourth quintile, improved its DCI from 74.3 to 68.6 and its statewide rank from 79th to 75th. Its national ranking, according to TIGC’s unofficial calculations, improved from 2,322nd in 2018 to 2,150th in the 2020 report.

Throughout my work on Trouble in God’s Country, I’ve waffled on the question of how best to characterize the divide between Georgia’s geographic haves and have-nots: Urban vs. Rural, Metro Atlanta vs. Everybody Else, North vs. South. In recent months, I’ve gravitated to the North vs. South view — with the understanding that North includes (and is driven by) Metro Atlanta and that South is everything from about the gnat line south.

The new EIG data, mapped below, reinforces that view. The key takeaway from this map isn’t that the best-scoring counties are concentrated in and around Metro Atlanta — that’s no surprise. It’s that the largest group of the middle-range counties — those shown in the lighter shades of blue — surround the Metro Atlanta region, reflecting region’s expanding economic influence.

The Georgia coast can claim a handful of counties with decent DCI ratings, and several others are scattered across rural Georgia. But with those few exceptions, the farther you get from Metro Atlanta, the darker the shades of blue — and the worse the DCI scores — become.

The EIG data and its DCI scores are in line with other assessments that make it clear that Georgia’s economic strength is concentrating more and more from roughly the gnat line north — as is its population growth and, therefore, its political power. This will ultimately — and sooner rather than later — undo a rough balance of political and economic power that has prevailed in the state for more than a century. It will also complicate the process of addressing the challenges in the state’s rural areas south of the gnat line.

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Following is a complete list of Georgia counties with their EIG DCI ratings and ranks, and the national quintile they fall into.

The making of a political earthquake that tipped the U.S. Senate

If football is a game of inches, politics is one of fractions — a glacial shift in demographics, incremental growth in voter registration, tiny changes in voter turnout.

In isolation, individual events like these may seem small and insignificant. In combination, they are like the grinding of tectonic plates that can remake an entire landscape.

That’s what’s been happening in Georgia for the past decade. The first big tremor finally hit on November 3, when the state sided with a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time since 1992. An even bigger shaker hit last Tuesday, January 5, when Georgians deposed incumbent Republican senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue and replaced them not just with Democrats, but with the Black pastor of Martin Luther King’s church and a 33-year-old Jewish television documentary producer. Neither had held office before.

But it’s the aftershocks that are already rippling across the state that will reshape Georgia’s politics for generations to come. They will also spell an end to rural dominance at the State Capitol, although the death throes may go on for several years.

The dust hasn’t even settled on Tuesday’s Senate runoffs and the state’s political sights are already being leveled at 2022 and the next round of races for the state’s constitutional offices, including one of the two U.S. Senate seats, governor, lieutenant governor and — perhaps most notably — secretary of state.

Brad Raffensperger, the Republican incumbent secretary of state, is almost certainly being considered for a John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Award, but right now he can’t leave home without a bodyguard. Now halfway through his first term, Raffensperger was a low-profile state legislator before throwing his hat in the ring for secretary of state; then, having an (R) after his name was enough to allow him to squeak past John Barrow, a former Democratic congressman, in a runoff.

Now, his insistence on actually counting Georgia’s presidential and senatorial votes — and his temerity in standing up to direct pressure from President Trump — may have doomed him politically. The current political firestorm may pass, but right now it’s difficult to see how he survives a credible GOP primary challenge, which he will almost certainly draw.

And then there’s the governor’s race. The Republican incumbent, Brian Kemp, is in little better shape than Raffensperger.  Kemp was already saddled with horrific Covid-19 numbers when the presidential election blew up in his face.  Long accustomed to easy walks in the park in presidential elections, Georgia Republicans were plainly caught off guard when, very late in the race, the Peach State suddenly started showing up on national battleground radars.

Kemp was placed in the exquisitely difficult position of having to tell the president — to whom he quite literally owes his election — that any effort to have the Georgia General Assembly overturn the state’s election results would be doomed to failure.  Trump is now promoting the likely gubernatorial candidacy of former U.S. Representative Doug Collins, the frenetic Gainesville Republican who defended Trump during the House impeachment fight.

Whoever survives that death cage match will probably face Stacey Abrams in the 2022 General Election. The architect and field general of the Democratic Party’s rebirth in Georgia, Abrams might yet be recruited to some high-profile position in Joe Biden’s Washington, but the smart money is that she’s hanging around for another run at the governor’s office, which she very narrowly lost to Kemp in a runoff two years ago.

Runoffs have, indeed, become a thing in Georgia. They were put into place by the state legislature more than a half-century ago after a U.S. Supreme Court “one man/one vote” decision drove a stake through the heart of Georgia’s infamous county-unit system. Runoffs became the new rural bulwark against Atlanta’s growing (Black) population and rising (Black) political power — and they worked until they didn’t.

Which brings us back to fractions (and, increasingly, whole numbers).  Population growth and demographic shifts may have favored the Democrats in recent years, but Republicans have stayed in the game by outhustling them at the polls.  In the 2018 governor’s race, the 29 mostly urban and suburban counties that sided with Abrams were home to well over half-a-million more registered voters than the 130 largely rural counties that went for Kemp.  But the voter turnout in the Kemp counties was 61.5 percent versus an even 60 percent in the Abrams counties; that edge, and the Republicans’ continuing hold on at least a portion of the suburban vote, enabled Kemp to squeak by.

In the 2020 General Election – with Trump at the top of the ticket – Republicans actually grew their turnout advantage.  The Republican counties turned out 68.8 percent of their voters to 65.3 percent for the Democratic counties – a plump, 3.5-point advantage – and Perdue built a daunting 100,000-vote lead to take into the runoff.  Even though Loeffler trailed Warnock in the 20-candidate “jungle primary” for the other Senate seat, she was presumed to have a similar advantage going into the runoff.

But without Trump on the ballot – and with his regular assaults on Kemp, Raffensperger and the reliability of Georgia’s elections system – the GOP turnout advantage fell to about 1.2 percentage points.  At the same time, based on data available from the Secretary of State’s office, the Democratic-voting counties fattened their already big lead in the total number of registered voters by more than 150,000, and the political algebra simply became overwhelming.

As did the voting options.  In the early in-person and mail voting, Ossoff and Warnock ran up 400,000-plus vote margins that Perdue and Loeffler couldn’t erase with strong election day showings.  In the end, Ossoff won by 51,150 votes and Warnock by 89,404.  Both margins were outside the recount margins and big enough that both Perdue and Loeffler threw in their respective towels, thereby depriving the state’s barristers of another marathon round of post-election litigation.

Those margins may, of course, exaggerate the state of play in Georgia politics, but it’s difficult to find much good news for the state’s Republicans in these latest results.  They did have some down-ballot victories, but all in all this year’s extended political season brought the urban-rural divide into starker relief.

For the GOP, Metro Atlanta was basically reduced to fly-over country.  Trump’s three rallies on behalf of Perdue and Loeffler were held in Valdosta, Macon and finally Dalton (where, incidentally, the local 14-day Covid-19 case rate was more than six times the number required to make the Trump White House Coronavirus Task Force’s red zone list).  For his part, Vice President Pence made a final campaign swing, on January 4, through Milner, Ga. (pop. 654).  Suffice to say, neither Milner nor Dalton quite got the job done. 

The general election and runoff results almost certainly presage a period of Republican-on-Republican political violence that will extend through the current regular session of the Georgia General Assembly and a special reapportionment session later this year, when any remaining survivors will convene to draw new legislative district lines.  Further GOP collateral damage seems certain, especially in South Georgia.

At this point, the Georgia Republican Party’s options appear limited.  A state party official’s apparently serious 2019 suggestion  that Republicans use what he called a “fertility advantage” to outbreed Democrats has yet to yield much known success.  In the wake of last Tuesday’s Senate runoffs, the only known GOP policy response has not been to propose legislation addressing their districts’ economic, educational or healthcare needs, but, as the AJC reported last week, to eliminate no-excuse absentee voting, ballot drop boxes and unsolicited absentee ballot application mailings. 

© Trouble in God’s Country 2021

TIGC Senate Analysis: A ton of ifs, but Ossoff and Warnock seem to have key advantages

Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, the Democratic challengers running against incumbent Republican U.S. Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, started the morning with an estimated lead of nearly 180,000 early votes, but that may not be enough to hold off an onslaught of in-person runoff-day GOP votes.

That’s the picture that emerges from a Trouble in God’s Country analysis of the record 3.1 million early votes Georgians had already cast, in person and by mail, by the time the polls opened at 7 a.m. today. That analysis assumes that the Democratic and Republican candidates got the same percentages of early in-person and mail votes — on a county-specific level — that Perdue and Ossoff received in the November 3 general election.

If those percentages hold, Ossoff and Warnock have run up a lead of nearly 272,000 mail votes and Perdue and Loeffler have erased just under 93,000 of those votes with early in-person votes, hence the Democratic lead of a little less than 180,000 votes. If, however, today’s in-person turnout matches, proportionally, the November 3 election-day turnout and the same Perdue-Ossoff splits hold, the Republicans stand to wipe out the rest of the Democratic advantage and take a lead of nearly 9,500 votes.

Which is not quite the end of the story.

As of the latest data posted at georgiavotes.com, some 236,301 mail ballots had yet to be received by their respective county elections officials. If every last one of those ballots gets in under today’s 7 p.m. wire — and the aforementioned mail-vote split still holds — Ossoff and Warnock stand to run up a 70,000 vote advantage in this category and finish the day with a winning margin of about 60,000 votes.

That is, of course, a lot of ifs, and your TIGC Decision Desk is a long way from calling these elections — but most of the available metrics do seem to favor the Democrats.

The most obvious is turnout. In the November 3 general election, the early vote turnout (in-person plus mail) was 54.0 percent in the 28 counties that sided with Ossoff versus 53.4 percent for the 131 counties that went for Perdue, a difference of six-tenths of a percentage point. In the runoff, the Democratic counties have increased their turnout advantage to 2.9 percent; as of this morning’s data, total early vote turnout in the Ossoff counties was 42.6 percent versus 39.7 percent in the Perdue counties.

In the general election, the Perdue counties delivered a 15.4 percent election-day turnout versus 11.2 percent for the Ossoff counties. In November, that was enough to wipe out Ossoff’s early vote lead and give Perdue a near-90,000 vote advantage that still felt short of the majority vote required under Georgia law. But the early-vote advantage built up in the Democratic counties does seem to make today’s turnout algebra all the more daunting for the Republicans.

Reinforcing the magnitude of their turnout task is a comparison early vote performance in Georgia’s congressional districts that is now posted at georgiavotes.com. The heavily-black 4th, 5th and 13th congressional districts — all centered in Metro Atlanta — have already delivered well over 80 percent of their general election vote, while outlying Republican-held districts are lagging behind. The hyper-conservative 14th congressional district, where President Trump held a rally Monday night, has only turned out 70 percent of its general election votes so far, more than a dozen points lower than 4th and 5th districts.

If most of the visible straws in the wind favor the Democrats, they still face a few major unanswered questions. Probably the biggest has to do with the 100,000-vote drop-off from Joe Biden to Ossoff and whether those largely suburban voters will come back to the polls and be enough to hold off the Democrats’ early vote advantage.

(c) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2021

A first look at final early voting data favors Democrats; key GOP areas lag in runoff turnout

Now that we’ve closed the books on early voting, it’s possible to begin assessing turnout in the state’s 159 counties — and there’s a little news here. I’m working on a bigger analysis of the Senate runoff data, but here’s a teaser.

It’s been fairly clear for a while that the Democrats were winning the turnout battle, but the data that became available today brings that picture into even sharper focus.

This map is intended to illustrate how each county has fared so far in the runoff with early in-person voting and mail voting versus its turnout in the same categories in the general election. The darker the green, the better a county is doing — that is, the closer it came to matching its early and mail performance in the general election.

Leading the early turnout vote so far is rural Randolph County, located hard on the Alabama line in southwest Georgia. Through the close of early voting, it had generated 2,087 early in-person and mail-in votes — 91 percent of the 2,291 early and mail votes it produced in the general election. It was one of several rural southwest Georgia counties with substantial Black populations that tilted for Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff over incumbent GOP Senator David Perdue in the November 3 general election, and all of them appear to be showing up for Round 2.

At the other end of the spectrum, 13 of the 14 counties that show up in the lightest shade on the map above went for Perdue, some of them heavily. Rural Brantley County, in southeast Georgia, gave 90.8 percent of its general election vote to Perdue, but so far has turned out only 69 percent of its early general election vote.

Also concerning for the Republicans should be uber-conservative northwest Georgia, which just sent Qanon supporter Margaret Taylor Greene to Congress, and where President Trump will make his final campaign stop for Perdue and Senator Kelly Loeffler Monday night. There, most of the more rural counties produced an early runoff turnout of less than three-fourths of their comparable general election showing, and the major population centers are clearly lagging even further behind: Floyd, at 69.8 percent; Carroll, 70 percent; Whitfield 71.4 percent, even exurban Cherokee at 67.3 percent.

For reasons that are unclear, the cluster of counties in the northeastern corner of the state — also a Republican stronghold — are performing much better than their fellow GOP counties to the west. All of them posted early in-person and mail-in votes for the runoff of at least 80 percent of their general election turnout.

Major Democratic strongholds in Metro Atlanta are doing much better in at least coming close to matching their general election performance: Fulton County came in at 79.9 percent of its general election early and mail vote showing; DeKalb, 83.9 percent; Gwinnett, 78.6 percent. Of the largest counties, only Cobb lagged the group, turning out 72.5 percent of its general election performance.

Perhaps most encouraging for the Ossoff and his tag-team partner, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, was heavily-black Clayton County. Its turnout lagged other major Democratic counties in the general election, but it seems to be trying to make up for that performance in the runoff. So far, it’s turning in one of the best performances in the state, at 85.5 percent of its early general election turnout.

None of this is predictive, of course, and Republicans typically dominate election-day voting. But there sure seems to be more good news for Ossoff and Warnock than Perdue and Loeffler in this first pass at the early-voting data.

Watch this space. More to come tomorrow or Monday.

(c) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2021

Ossoff and Warnock likely building up strong early vote leads. Will they be enough to withstand GOP turnout on election day?

Heading into the final week of early voting, Georgia Democrats appear to have crystallized several foundational advantages that could put challengers Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock within striking distance of incumbent Republican U.S. Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler in their tag-team match for the state’s two Senate seats and control of the United States Senate.

Indeed, TIGC’s analysis of a wealth of early voting data available primarily from Georgia’s Secretary of State and the website http://www.georgiavotes.com strongly suggests that Ossoff and Warnock have already banked healthy leads in early mail and in-person voting — and, perhaps more worrying for Perdue and Loeffler, that GOP fears of a drop-off in votes from voters whose primary loyalty was to President Trump may well be materializing.

If Perdue and Ossoff are holding the same county-level vote shares in the runoff they received in the general election, Ossoff has banked an early-vote lead of nearly 42,000 votes so far. What’s more, two-thirds of the nearly 528,000 absentee mail ballots that have yet to be returned are in the hands of voters in the Ossoff counties. If all those ballots are returned and the general election vote-shares hold for them as well, Ossoff’s early vote lead would swell to more than 93,000.

Roughly the same would presumably hold true for the Warnock-Loeffler race, but it’s impossible to conduct the same kind of vote-share analysis for their race: they earned their places in the January 5 runoff by emerging as the top two vote-getters in the multi-candidate, non-partisan “jungle primary” that was held in conjunction with the November 3 general election. However, the limited public polling that has been conducted suggests that the two races are indeed running pretty much parallel with one another — that, in fact, Warnock may be doing slightly better against Loeffler than Ossoff is against Perdue.

This is not to suggest that the Democrats are on an easy glide path toward certain victory. President-elect Joe Biden had piled up a mail and early vote advantage over Trump of nearly 230,000 votes here in Georgia — and nearly saw it wiped out when Trump ran up a 220,000-vote margin on election day. But it does seem that the Democrats have muscled up in a couple of key areas that could make the difference on January 5.

Probably the most significant foundational advantage the Democrats can currently claim is in voter turnout. Through the most recent county-level early voting data reported by georgiavotes.com, the 28 counties that sided with Ossoff in the general election — all the state’s heavily populated urban counties and a smattering of heavily black rural counties — were turning out a higher percentage of registered voters than the 131 mostly rural counties that went for Perdue. As of Sunday’s data, 29 percent of registered voters in the Ossoff counties had already voted in person or by mail versus 26.8 percent in the Perdue counties — an advantage of more than two points in a category historically dominated by Republicans. More than 30 percent of registered voters have already voted in such Metro Atlanta behemoths as Fulton, Gwinnett, DeKalb, Douglas and Rockdale counties.

Perdue, meanwhile, is having to rely on the state’s rural counties, and so far they have been falling further and further behind over the course of the early voting process. A couple of clusters a dependable Republican counties — Oconee, Greene, Morgan and Putnam in just east of Metro Atlanta and Union, Towns and Rabun on the North Carolina line — are already in the high 30s and, in a couple of cases, the low 40s. But the vast majority of counties that supported Perdue in the general election are still lagging badly behind in the mid- and even low-20s (those in pale pink on the map at left).

The Democrats’ apparent turnout lead comes on top of a significant — and growing — advantage in the sheer number of registered voters in the Ossoff counties versus the Perdue counties. For the general election, the Ossoff counties were already home to more voters — 3.91 million versus 3.32 million for Perdue — and the Ossoff counties padded their advantage by more than 50,000 new registered voters between the general election and the deadline for runoff registration. For the runoff, the Ossoff counties now have 4.07 million registered voters to the Perdue counties’ 3.42 million — an advantage of nearly nine percentage points.

The largest recent poll available — a SurveyUSA poll conducted just before Christmas for WXIA-TV — aligned with TIGC’s analysis of the early voting data in several ways, including especially indications that fervent pro-Trump rural voters may not come back to the polls to support the incumbent Republican senators. The SurveyUSA poll of 691 Georgia registered voters included a battery of questions focused on whether or not they actually intended to vote in the runoff and found that about 11 percent planned to stay home.

That cohort of avowed non-voters included some Democrats and independents but was made up more heavily of Republicans who supported President Trump, and it was clear they had heard his complaints about the election being rigged against him. Fully 42 percent of the rural GOP voters who planned not to vote said their decision was based on a belief that “the voting process is rigged.” Further, the SurveyUSA poll found that the number of Atlanta area voters who planned not to vote in the runoff was about half the percentage in northwestern and southeastern parts of the state (about three percent in Atlanta versus six and five percent, respectively, in in SurveyUSA’s northwestern and southeastern regions.)

This SurveyUSA finding of dampened enthusiasm among Trump supporters squares with the picture emerging from the early voting data so far, including the map above of the Perdue counties. In addition, georgiareports.com’s latest slicing of the early voting data by congressional district underscores the picture that emerged from the county-level analysis discussed above: the five Metro Atlanta congressional districts held by Democrats are turning out at significantly higher levels than those held by Republicans. For those five Democratic-held districts, the turnout rate as of Sunday was 31.3 percent, higher by several points than any of the state’s Republican-held district. Indeed, it was exactly 10 points higher than the turnout than for Georgia’s 14th congressional district in the northwestern corner of the state, which was just won by Qanon devotee Margaret Taylor Greene and was one of the last places in the state where Trump personally campaigned.

With a full week of early voting and the January 5 runoff still to go, these numbers could of course change. Indeed, TIGC’s vote-share analysis and projections could simply turn out to be wrong. If so, however, that would represent a dramatic departure from voting patterns and trends that have been developing and firming up over the past decade or so of election cycles. And, while few obvious straws in the wind seem to be blowing the GOP’s way right now, it needs to be said that Ossoff and Warnock still have strategic soft spots as well: they are, in particular, still not getting the vote production they need out of heavily black urban counties like Dougherty (18.8 percent); Chatham (19.7 percent); Richmond (21.5 percent); Bibb (24.2 percent); Muscogee (24.6 percent), and Clayton (25.9 percent).

Still, it seems likely Ossoff and Warnock will head into the runoff with a lead in the early and mail votes. Whether it will be sufficient to withstand the traditional Republican election day turnout advantage remains to be seen, and is the question that will grip the state — and much of the nation — for the next 10 days.

(c) copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2020

Could the January 5 Senate runoff be a turning point in Georgia’s rural-urban political struggle?

(12/22 Note: As of this morning, the website georgiavotes.com has reported a little more than 200,000 new votes over and above those used in the post below, but not much changes. The turnout advantage for the 28 Democratic counties that sided with Ossoff in the general election shrunk to 1.1 percentage points from the 1.3-point margin we found in yesterday’s analysis, and the hypothetical Democratic vote advantage, based on county-level vote shares from the general election, dropped from about 25,000 to about 22,000.)

This is one of those posts where it’s important to begin with the caveats. I’m probably going to use up what’s left of my lifetime supply of ifs, buts and maybes in this one piece. I offer it as a good-faith effort to make sense of the early-voting data that is now publicly available, but nobody should rush to call their bookie and place any bets.

That said, let’s get on with this year’s favorite political parlor game: trying to sort out who will win Georgia’s twin runoff elections for the U.S. Senate on January 5, 2021 — incumbent Republicans David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler or Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock.

These races will tell us a lot about the future of Georgia’s rural-urban political divide. Until this year — pretty much since the dawn of time — rural interests and voters have held sway in Georgia politics, whether under Democrats or Republicans. After more than a century of Democratic rule, Republicans in the last 20 years have clawed their way to power at every level of government, from county courthouses to the state capitol to Congress. Initially, their base was heavily suburban and even urban.

But since then, Republicans have come to rely most heavily on rural voters while Democrats have taken control of the state’s major cities and pushed into the suburbs. In the 2020 General Election, Perdue carried 131 rural counties while Ossoff led in the other 28, which included all the state’s densely-populated urban and suburban counties and a smattering of rural counties with significant Black populations.

This stark urban-rural divide has been developing and firming up over several election cycles, with maybe one or two counties sliding back and forth. It held true in the 2016 presidential election, the 2018 gubernatorial race and now the 2020 presidential and senate elections. But 2020 has long been forecast as the year when the demographic tide would finally overwhelm Republicans, and it’s starting to look like that might be the case.

Based on various chunks of data pulled this morning from the websites of the Georgia Secretary of State (SOS) georgiavotes.com (which scrapes data from the SOS site and organizes it into easier-to-use county-level views), several observations are possible.

The first is that significantly more new voters were registered in the 28 Democratic counties than in the 131 GOP counties since the general election, according to the SOS and georgiavotes.com data. The total number of registered voters increased by a total 255,704 between the general election and the close of registration for the runoffs; of those, 152,859 were registered in the Democratic counties versus 102,845 in the GOP counties — an advantage of 50,000 on Democratic turf. That puts the total number of registered voters in the Democratic counties at 4.07 million versus 3.42 million in the Republican counties, basically a 54-to-46 percent split.

Second, the 28 Democratic counties are currently outvoting the Republican counties. This represents the reversal (perhaps temporary) of what has been a significant GOP advantage — voter turnout. Traditionally, Republicans have been able to turn out their rural voters by a margin of two or three percentage points more than voters in the Democratic counties.

As of this morning’s georgiavotes.com report, however, turnout in the Ossoff counties stood at 20.2 percent versus 18.9 percent for the Perdue counties. This shift occurred over the weekend; as of the most recent previous report on Friday, the Perdue counties still had about a half-point advantage in turnout. And this trend could of course flip again. Today’s new numbers reflected votes that were logged primarily in the Ossoff counties, and the next report may come from the rural GOP counties that went heavily for Perdue.

That said, the third observation is that a lot more mail ballots have been requested in the Ossoff counties, and there are still a lot more outstanding. This table summarizes the key numbers pulled from this morning’s report at georgiavotes.com.

Of course, just because a new voter was registered in a Democratic county or a mail ballot was requested there, that doesn’t mean it will go for Ossoff or his partner on the Democratic ticket, Warnock. But the sheer numerical differences make it difficult (at least for your humble scribe here at TIGC) to interpret them in ways that auger well for Perdue or Loeffler.

That said, Republican voters historically favor election-day voting, which leaves the door open for a strong finish by the two incumbents, and it could be that Republican efforts to pump up their mail vote are succeeding, perhaps especially in the suburbs.

So what does all this mean in terms of a forecast?

Well, if — big, huge, bold-faced, all-caps, underlined IFthe county-level vote shares from the general election hold true in the runoff, Ossoff and Warnock are probably ahead of Perdue and Loeffler by about 25,000 votes based on the votes that have already been cast. If — and, again, another massive, bold-faced, all-caps IF — all the outstanding mail ballots are indeed returned and the same county-level vote splits hold, the Democratic advantage would swell to roughly 90,000 votes.

But that doesn’t include the additional in-person votes that will be cast both early and on January 5, and it shouldn’t be read as a forecast or a prediction. I started fiddling with this post on Saturday; if I had finished it then, based on Friday’s data, I would have reported that the Republicans were probably ahead by about 8,000 votes, and it may well shift back as rural counties update their early-vote totals in the days ahead.

This analysis also doesn’t solve the political riddle presented to Ossoff (and potentially Warnock) by the general election results — the fact that Ossoff got nearly 100,000 fewer votes than his party’s presidential nominee, Joe Biden, who, of course, flipped Georgia blue for the first time since 1992. Conventional wisdom then and now held that traditionally Republican suburban voters who had turned against President Trump still wanted a legislative check on any Democrat in the White House, and none of the foregoing analysis should be read as contradicting that assessment.

Further, while Black voters currently constitute more than 30 percent of the early vote to date (according to georgiavotes.com), voter turnout is still lagging in heavily Black counties that are vital to Democratic fortunes, including Bibb (Macon) at 18.8 percent, Chatham (Savannah) at 13.9, Clayton (South Metro Atlanta) at 18.9, Dougherty (Albany) at 13.3, Muscogee (Columbus) at 16.2, and Richmond (Augusta) at 15.0.

But Georgia’s Republicans are also having to navigate some muddy political waters. Chief among the GOP’s problems is what may be a split between the party’s suburban supporters and President Trump’s red-capped MAGA base in rural Georgia, which routinely gave him margins of more than 70 and 80 percent in 2016 and again in 2020. If the suburban voters might be inclined to stand with the party’s incumbent senators, rural voters may be so discouraged by Trump’s continuing claims of voter fraud that some of them may stay home. Or so party leaders are widely reported to fear.

Bottom line?

If the two parties have any kind of home-field advantage in the counties they carried, it seems likely that Georgia’s Democrats have really muscled up in some key foundational areas: voter registration, mail-in voting and turnout. Right now, they seem to have an advantage in all three areas. If they can sustain it, January 5 may be a tough day for Georgia Republicans, and a pivot point in the state’s rural-urban political struggle.

Watch this space. We’ll update this analysis as more numbers roll in.

(c) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2021

New county-level GDP data suggests rural Georgia has, for a change, improved relative to Metro Atlanta

For the first time in years, rural Georgia in 2019 actually gained a little ground on Metro Atlanta in terms of economic output, according to new data released Thursday by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA).

The new county-level gross domestic product (GDP) data shows that, from 2018 to 2019, TIGC’s 56 South Georgia counties and 43 Middle Georgia counties grew their GDPs by 3.8 percent and 2.3 percent, respectively, while the 12-county Metro Atlanta region and North Georgia’s 41 counties grew by only 1.5 percent and .8 percent, respectively.

As TIGC reported a year ago, fully three-fourths of Georgia’s GDP is produced in Metro Atlanta and North Georgia, but the 106 mostly rural counties from Macon south whittled away slightly at that difference in 2019. In 2018, 75.4 percent of the state’s $538.8 billion economy was generated in Metro Atlanta and North Georgia. In 2019, the Metro Atlanta-North Georgia share of the 2019 $547.8 billion GDP was down two-tenths of a point, to 75.2 percent.

Put another way, 63.7 percent of the $8.67 billion in 2019 growth took place in Metro Atlanta and North Georgia versus 36.3 percent in the combined Middle Georgia, South Georgia and Coastal Georgia regions.

Moreover, the number of counties that saw their GDPs decline dropped from 31 in 2018 to 22 in 2019, and most were scattered loosely across the state, in ones and two — as this map suggests.

That said, it remains to be seen whether this new GDP represents a turning point or a mere pause in a long-term trend, but it marks the first time in about a decade — since the Great Recession — that the gap between Metro Atlanta and the rest of the state has not widened. Metro Atlanta was initially hit harder by that economic downturn, but it recovered faster and, until 2019, had continued to grow its share of the state’s economic output.

These latest results appear to owe to several factors, including:

Relatively anemic growth in the 12-county Metro Atlanta region. Two Metro Atlanta counties suffered actual declines in their GDP. DeKalb saw its near-$38 billion economy slip one-tenth of a percentage point while Clayton, with more than $17 billion in GDP, dropped 1.5 percent. Even Gwinnett County, which is accustomed to robust growth, grew its $44 billion economy by less than one percent. The best performers in Metro Atlanta were suburban counties — Henry County, on the southside, with 6.7 percent in growth, and Cherokee County, to the north, with a 4.6 percent growth rate.

What may be a sudden downturn in a previously vibrant area of northeast Georgia. In particular, seven contiguous counties in northeast Georgia (see map at right) that had been posting relatively impressive year-over-year growth all saw their numbers decline in 2019. Included in this group is Oglethorpe County, whose 10.3 percent decline — from $317.5 million to $284.7 million was the worst in the state. These seven counties all had among the lowest growth rates in the state.

A resurgence in southwest Georgia. If typically vibrant counties in northeast Georgia suffered an unexpected decline in 2019, 10 counties in usually beleaguered deep southwest Georgia enjoyed a major uptick. Baker County, which had been losing population and GDP for several years, posted the biggest one-year gain in the state: 21.9 percent. That grew Baker County’s GDP from $72.3 million to $88.1 million in a single year. But it was only one of 10 contiguous deep southwest Georgia counties that posted double-digit increases (see map at left). Many of them were, to be sure, bouncing back from declines in previous years, but the appearance of a regional trend would seem to be significant.

Copyright (c) Trouble in God’s Country 2020

More on Georgia’s 2020 Senate math: Dems lead in voter registration, GOP in turnout. And we may have Krakens

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Your TIGC weekend Covid-19 update: Things are bad and getting worse

Last weekend TIGC reported that 70 Georgia counties qualified as Covid-19 “red zones” and that the bug appeared to be mounting a new assault on Metro Atlanta from its fortifications in the North Georgia mountains.

Today we can report that the number of counties whose seven-day rates exceed 100 cases per 100,000 people — the “red zone” threshold set by the White House Coronovirus Task Force — is up to 96, and all 12 Metro Atlanta counties are now included in that group.

This is, obviously, part of a national trend. The AJC reported this morning that Georgia is one of 48 states that qualify as red zones. But, as usual, virus’s attacks are far from uniform, and it seems to move from one region to another in an almost deliberate manner. These two maps show its progression out of the North Georgia hills over the past week.

At the same time, the virus seems to be giving much of rural Middle and South Georgia a bit of a breather. This doesn’t mean that the virus has gone away, just that — for the moment — the seven-day case rate has fallen below the 100 cases per 100,000 people level.

But that could change, and quickly. As the bug has re-invaded Metro Atlanta, it also seems to be knifing its way back down I-75 and could easily branch off into the rural counties to the east or west.

At the moment, Whitfield and Murray counties, side-by-side neighbors on the Tennessee line, jointly constitute the hottest spot in the state. Combined, their seven-day case rate is 511.27 per 100,000 people — more than five times what it takes to qualify as a Covid-19 “red zone” — and their combined seven-day death rate is 7.59 per 100,000. The state average for the past seven days was 1.56 deaths per 100,000. The state’s three largest counties — Fulton, Gwinnett and DeKalb — had seven-day death rates of .45 per 100,000 people, .72, and .76, respectively.

The cause of the Whitfield-Murray outbreak isn’t clear. The Daily Citizen-News, the newspaper in the Whitfield county seat of Dalton, has covered the outbreak — including stories on the reluctance of local officials to impose a mask mandate — and editorialized about it. But a limited scan of its online stories (before the paywall came up) failed to find anything about what might be driving the outbreak.

In an editorial published today (November 21), the Daily Citizen-News noted Whitfield’s unhappy standing at the top of the new case-rate list and lamented the lack of citizen observance of recommended public health practices.

” … (M)any of us ignore the advice of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as we refuse to wear masks and/or practice social distancing. The lack of masks and social distancing is evident all over town. We have to do better,” the newspaper added.

(c) Trouble in God’s Country 2020

Covid-19 Update: Much of Metro Atlanta now a red zone

The spread of Covid-19 that had turned virtually all of northwest Georgia into a “red zone” now appears to have re-invaded Metro Atlanta.

As TIGC reported in a couple of recent posts, most of the counties in the northwestern corner of the state had been posting 7-day case rates of at least 100 new cases per 100,000 residents, which would put them in what the White House Coronovirus Task Force considers a “red zone.”

Until recently, the bug seemed to be doing most of its recent and current damage in a cluster of nearly 20 contiguous counties in north Georgia, but it hadn’t re-entered the Metro Atlanta region with enough force to push the area back into the seven-day red zone. Now it has, as this map illustrates.

Indeed, the AJC reported Friday that the head of the Cobb and Douglas county health departments had issued a special warning because of rising rates in the area. The newspaper quoted Dr. Janet Memark, the director for the Cobb-Douglas health district, as saying the rates were rising even though testing was down, and that she thought state data underestimated the actual spread of the virus.

“It’s decreased demand [for testing] but yet the percentage positive is going up,” she told the AJC. “I do think we have some substantial transmission that’s happening.”

The only North Metro and North Georgia counties that escaped red zone numbers were Gilmer, Dawson and Forsyth, and they didn’t miss it by much; their seven-day case rates were 95.5, 99.7 and 90.7, respectively.

On Metro Atlanta’s western edge, Douglas and Paulding counties posted 7-day case rates in the mid-80s, and the counties on the southern edge of the Atlanta region — Heard, Coweta and Fayette — were cooler still, with case rates in the 50s and 60s.

But the four biggest counties in Metro Atlanta all posted seven-day case rates that put them in the red zone: Fulton at 113.3; Gwinnett, 133; DeKalb, 129.4, and Cobb, 106.8

All told, 70 counties qualified for red zone status as of Saturday’s report from the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH), and for a change the southern part of the state appeared to be somewhat cooler than the northern half, as this map illustrates.

While there were obviously clusters of counties in Middle and South Georgia whose numbers put them in the red zone, the vast majority — again, for a change — appeared to be seeing at least a brief respite from the virus’s siege through those parts of the state.

(c) Trouble in God’s Country 2020