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.”
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