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A first dive into Georgia’s June 9 primary results: a Blue tide rises across the state

I’ve been waiting for all the votes from Georgia’s June 9 party primaries to be counted before jumping into the data and trying to figure out what it all means from a TIGC perspective.  As of Monday morning, the Georgia Secretary of State’s website tells me that all 2,627 precincts in all 159 counties have now been reported, even though the results are still listed as “unofficial” and it’s not clear that all the counties’ results have been certified.  I figure that’s close enough to get started.  If something major changes, I’ll update this report later.

Two years ago, the main political story out of the governor’s race was that rural Georgia and the Atlanta exurbs barely hung on and dragged Republican Brian Kemp across the finish line and into the governor’s office.  The 130 largely rural and sparsely populated counties Kemp carried turned out at a slightly higher rate than the 29 largely urban counties won by Democrat Stacey Abrams.

The story out of the 2020 party primaries appears to be that demography is finally having its way with the state.  This year has long been forecast as the year when the state’s politics would finally tip back in the Democrats favor, and it’s looking like those forecasts might well be correct.  A strong blue tide washed over most of the state in the June 9 primaries, basically flipping the fast-growing ‘burbs in the northern metro area and cutting into Republican margins in most rural counties.

For this analysis, I’ve focused primarily on a comparison between this year’s U.S. Senate primaries and the 2014 primaries for the same seat.  That year, longtime incumbent Republican Saxby Chambliss was retiring, and both parties had competitive primaries, especially the Republicans.  Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Senator Sam Nunn, won the Democratic nomination without much difficulty.  The GOP chose David Perdue, a cousin of former Governor Sonny Perdue, after a seven-candidate free-for-all and a run-off with then-U.S. Representative Jack Kingston.  Perdue went on to defeat Nunn and is now running for re-election to a second term.

(I spent some time rummaging around in the presidential primary numbers as well.  The results, not surprisingly, are pretty much the same as I found in the Senate data.  I may do a presidential primary breakout later.)

In that 2014 Senate primary, Republicans cast nearly twice as many votes as Democrats: 605,355 to 328,710.  Two weeks ago, the Senate primary turnout more than doubled its 2014 total – to more than 2.1 million votes – and the Democratic field outpolled Perdue, who was unopposed for nomination to another term, by nearly 200,000 votes: 1,179,198 for the Democrats to 984,274 for Perdue.  Overall the state flipped from about 65%-to-35% Republican in 2014 to nearly 55%-to-45% Democrat this year.

If the topline numbers are eye-catching, some of the subplots are downright jaw-dropping.  Perhaps most startling, the GOP stronghold across the north Atlanta suburbs and exurbs seems to be collapsing.  Cobb and Gwinnett counties were long regarded as critical fortresses in the Republican Party’s grip on power in the state.  Both flipped narrowly for Democrat Hillary Clinton over Republican Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential race, then stuck with Abrams over Kemp in the 2018 governor’s race.

But if those 2016 and 2018 suburban numbers hit hard at GOP HQ, the 2020 results probably felt like a lethal dose of Covid-19 – and it wasn’t just Cobb and Gwinnett.  Cherokee and Forsyth counties, which sit between Cobb and Gwinnett and are fast-growing, affluent exurbs, came in a lot less red this time around.  In the 2014 Senate primaries, both Cherokee and Forsyth delivered more than 10 Republican votes for every Democratic ballot; this year, the margin was just a little over two-to-one.

Overall, those four counties went from being an 80-20 Republican stronghold in 2014 to 56-44 Democratic territory this year, as this table details.

County 2014 Republican Senate Percentage 2014 Democratic Senate Percentage 2020 Republican Senate Percentage 2020 Democratic Senate Percentage Party Shift (R-to-D)
Cherokee 92.2% 7.8% 69.0% 31.0% 23.2%
Cobb 74.7% 25.3% 38.6% 61.4% 36.1%
Forsyth 92.4% 7.6% 66.8% 33.2% 25.6%
Gwinnett 76.8% 23.2% 35.7% 64.3% 41.2%
Totals 80.3% 19.7% 44.1% 55.9% 36.2%

As a whole, the state has shifted 19.3 percentage points in the Democratic Party’s direction since the 2014 Senate primaries.  Not surprisingly, Metro Atlanta has led that shift.  In 2014, TIGC’s 12-county Metro Atlanta region cast 43.7 percent of the state’s votes in the Senate primary and gave the GOP a 58%-to-42% advantage.  This year those same 12 counties accounted for 49.8 percent of the total vote and gave the Democrats a 70%-to-30% advantage.

Forty-two of the state’s 159 counties did tilt toward the GOP in 2020, and those counties delivered 55,669 more Republican ballots than in 2014.  But 116 counties leaned more blue in 2020, and they delivered the Democrats a combined total of 835,332 more votes than in 2014.  Four counties – – Fulton, DeKalb, Gwinnett and Cobb – each provided more additional votes to the Democrats than the other 42 counties combined did for Republicans.

Indeed, mapping the party shift data suggests that Republicans are being driven largely south and east across the state, perhaps into the Okefenokee Swamp (if not the Atlantic Ocean) and possibly across the state line into Florida, as these maps suggest.

The map on the left shows the counties where Democrats grew their share of the Senate primary vote versus the 2014 Senate primary.  The darker the blue, the bigger the shift from Republican to Democrat.  The map on the right shows the same thing for counties that shifted Republican between 2014 and 2020.

The two counties that posted the biggest Democrat-to-Republican shifts over the past six years are Atkinson and Clinch, adjoining counties in deep southeast Georgia.  Both cast more Democratic ballots in the 2014 Senate primaries but have flipped hard Republican since then; Atkinson has shifted 67.4 percentage points to the GOP over the past six years, Clinch, 43.1 points.  Together, however, they contributed fewer than 2,700 votes to the Republican cause.

If Georgia as a whole is now more competitive than it has been in a couple of decades, that’s no longer true of the vast majority of its individual counties.  In 97 counties, at least 70 percent of voters cast their ballots for one party or the other.

Only eight counties were decided within the truly competitive range of 55%-to-45%.  Thomas, Mitchell, Meriwether, Houston, Lowndes, Telfair and Early counties tilted narrowly to the GOP (Early by a single vote, 1,417-to-1,416), while Fayette, long considered safe GOP territory, turned a pale shade of blue.  The largest of these may well become battleground counties in the fall campaigns.

At the extremes, Democrats need not bother venturing into such rural climes as Glascock, Echols, Berrien and Pierce, which, among others, gave more than 90 percent of their ballots to the Republican Party.

As one measure of just how red rural Georgia has become, Dodge and Haralson counties, the homes of the last two Democratic speakers of the Georgia House of Representatives, Terry Coleman and Tom Murphy, both champions of rural causes, gave 86 and 90.2 percent, respectively, of their votes to Republicans this time around.

By the same token, Perdue and other Republicans probably have little to gain by spending time or money in Clayton County (91 percent Democrat) or DeKalb (89.8 percent).  For the uninitiated, Clayton and DeKalb are a good bit bigger than all the high-percentage GOP counties combined.

Bottom line, if there is little obvious good news in these numbers for Georgia Republicans or rural Georgia, they should not be read as the basis for a sure bet that the state will flip this year.

GOP turnout was arguably depressed by the fact that both their Senate and presidential primaries were uncontested, and their voters had less reason to turn out, especially in the midst of a pandemic.  What’s more, Democratic Senate nominee Jon Ossoff will have his work cut out for him.  Prodigious fundraiser that he is, he barely avoided a runoff and will have to consolidate the support of his six Democratic primary opponents.

The one good bet for the fall is that it will be a turnout election.  With a few exceptions, neither Perdue nor Ossoff will have much incentive to spend time or money trying to convert voters in their opponent’s territory.  Instead, they’re likely to put their effort into activating their geographic bases, which is virtually certain to deepen Georgia’s political divide even further.  That, in turn, will only complicate efforts to create a policy construct needed to address the challenges facing rural Georgia.

 

Covid-19 may stir a perfect storm for rural Georgia

When I began work on this project some years back and came up with the title “Trouble in God’s Country,” I was thinking about things like the urban-rural divide in economics, education, healthcare, and politics.  It never crossed my mind that a new plague might come along that would stir up what might be a perfect storm for rural Georgia.

To be sure, Metro Atlanta and the state’s other urban areas will obviously take huge beatings in this as well, but rural communities may prove even more vulnerable, and not even in the long run.  Without even bothering to run through my usual tons of data, we can take judicial note of certain indisputable realities.

The most basic is that Georgia’s rural communities are older and less healthy.  That alone puts a Covid-19 target on their backs.  Add to that a healthcare delivery system that might charitably be described as frail and you’ve already got the makings of a heaping helping of trouble in God’s country.

But there’s more.  You can stir politics, religion, and crime into the mix.  As I’ve documented before, rural Georgia is overwhelmingly Republican and pro-Trump, and there’s already national polling by Pew Research suggesting that Republicans are taking Covid-19 less seriously than Democrats (or at least were until President Trump and FOX News began shifting tone earlier this week).

From the Pew report on its polling: “ … a vast majority of Republicans (76%) say the news media have exaggerated the risks associated with the virus – 53% greatly and 24% slightly – while far fewer (17%) say the media have gotten it about right. Democrats, on the other hand, are much more likely than Republicans to think the news media have gotten the level of risk about right (41%).”

As for religion and crime, it’s not for nothing that the region of Georgia from the gnat line south is known as both the Bible Belt and the Prison Belt.  Both churches and prisons hold the potential to serve as lethal vectors for the bug.  I started canvassing rural Georgia contacts earlier this week and one common theme in the feedback revolved around a reluctance to cancel church services; as things have worked out, it sounds like the cancellations are indeed taking place, maybe a week later than they might have.  In several communities, churches are reportedly planning to live-stream their services via Facebook and other technologies.

Prisons are a different story.  According to the Georgia Department of Corrections’ website, its 34 state prisons house 52,000 felony offenders, and it’s difficult to imagine a more active breeding ground for Covid-19.  The vast majority of those prisons are in rural Georgia, most of them in Middle and South Georgia (as the red dots on GDC’s facilities map, here, illustrate). DOC Facilities Map

Those prison populations are constantly ebbing and flowing, as newly sentenced felons begin serving their time and those who have completed their sentences are freed.  Meanwhile, thousands of rural Georgians who work at those prisons come and go to fill the three daily shifts at each of them.

As it turns out, one of those employees has already tested positive for Covid-19, as both GDC and the AJC reported yesterday, although GDC hasn’t said where the employee worked.  So far, the department hasn’t reported any inmate infections, but it’s obviously a significant concern: GDC’s home page currently features a “COVID-19 UPDATES” banner and a “Covid19 Response” statement detailing the department’s response to the bug.  Among other things, all visitation has been suspended and prisoner movement is being limited to “required medical transfers.”

As for positive tests around the state, those now appear to be seeping rapidly into rural Georgia.  Any early expectations that the virus might do most of its damage in urban areas and not find its way to the hinterlands is being undercut by daily reports from the Georgia Department of Public Health.   The number of positive tests went from 197 in 28 counties on Tuesday to 287 in 34 counties on Wednesday (with the home counties of a half-dozen victims “unknown”).

If, as these maps suggest, it turned up first in Metro Atlanta and North Georgia, it is now making its way below the gnat line.

And there’s some evidence that the reality on the ground in some localities is outpacing the information being reported on a daily basis by DPH.  Albany and Dougherty County have emerged as a South Georgia hot spot, and DPH today put the number of confirmed cases there at 20.  But at about the same time DPH was posting its Wednesday numbers, Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany was holding a press conference where, according to the Albany Herald, it reported two more deaths (for a total of four), a total of 40 patients who had tested positive (and were either in the hospital or at home), and nearly 500 more area residents who were still awaiting test results.  Six Phoebe Putney employees have tested positive, the Herald reported.

And Thursday evening, the Tallahassee (Fla.) Memorial Hospital reported that an Early County, Ga., woman had died there of the virus.

_________

If rural Georgians were a little slower than their city cousins to react to the Coronavirus threat, they may now be taking it more seriously.  I canvassed a half-dozen contacts early in the week and then again yesterday and today.  All reported that the pace seemed to be picking up.  One South Georgia contact who reported earlier this week that people were mocking the “panic” and not changing their behavior indicated earlier today that was changing; more and more businesses cutting hours and more people were self-isolating.

Another contact, Jason Dunn, executive director of the Fitzgerald and Ben Hill County Development Authority, emailed me around mid-afternoon that it was “safe to say that we are seeing changes in day-to-day behavior.  Foot traffic in our office is down and the citizens that continuously support our locally owned eateries are more than likely to get their meal to-go rather than dining in.  The best that I can put it is that social distancing is tough in a tight-knit community, yet a majority of our citizens are taking precautions.”

And this from a northeast Georgia weekly newspaper editor: “Day-to-day has changed drastically. A lot of parents are getting a crash course in home-schooling and remote, electronic and digital learning. It also shows in dramatic fashion how a lack of adequate broadband can be a real disadvantage to a rural county without that kind of infrastructure!

“The question about the seriousness of the situation being slow to take hold was a good one,” he added.  “On a Tuesday, the track coach was planning on winning the state championship. On Friday he was bemoaning the fact that his team would probably not even get a shot at that achievement.”

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).  1990 Shaded MapYou 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.  2018 Shade MapThe 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.

 

‘Hey, Baby, you wanna help save America from socialism?’

A young up-and-comer in the Georgia Republican Party made headlines recently when he proclaimed that Republicans have a “fertility advantage” and suggested that a core GOP strategy going forward would be, basically, to out-breed the Democrats.

Brant Frost V, who is the second vice chair of the state GOP, told a recent meeting of Oconee County Republicans:

“Christian and conservative women have a 35 percent fertility advantage over Democrat women.  And the more conservative a woman is, the more likely she is to be married and have lots of kids – three, four, five, six kids.  And the more liberal and leftist a woman is, the less likely she is to even be married and have any children at all …”

I’m not making this up.  You can watch the video here.  Frost begins his remarks about an hour and seven minutes into the meeting.

As political Hail Marys go, you’ve got to give Frost credit for audacity.  I’m not sure it’ll work politically, but it’s bound to have a major impact on the Christian conservative singles-bar scene.  (“Hey, Baby, you wanna help save America from socialism?”)

But here’s the thing: Frost has absolutely zeroed in on the Republicans’ political problem.

According to data recently posted by the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH), 79 of Georgia’s 159 counties had more deaths than births in 2018.

That’s actually news: it’s a record high, and it extends an alarming trend that started about a decade ago.  DPH’s public databases of births and deaths go back to 1994, and for about the first 15 years the number of counties reporting more deaths than births floated between about 10 and 20.  But that changed starting in 2010, as this graph shows.

More Deaths than Births Column Graph

These numbers are politically relevant to Frost’s grand strategy for a couple of reasons.  First, 78 of the 79 counties are rural; the only one that’s not is Fayette County, long recognized as a popular redoubt for retirees well past child-bearing age.  It’s also dependably Republican.

Second, Georgia’s rural regions have voted overwhelmingly Republican in the recent past.  Georgia’s current Republican governor, Brian Kemp, owes his narrow election over Democrat Stacey Abrams last year to extraordinarily high turnout and huge margins in rural Georgia.

And the importance of Frost’s vision – for conservative women to have “three, four, five, six” babies each – becomes even clearer when you drill down into the data and break it down by race.  Whites voted three-to-one for Kemp while blacks went more than nine-to-one for Abrams, according to an election-season poll of Georgia voters.

The number of counties reporting more white deaths than births was 104.  Eighty-four of those counties voted for Kemp.

These maps should leave little doubt about the vital importance of Frost’s strategy.  The first one spotlights the counties that had more white deaths than births in red; the second one shows the counties that went Republican in the 2018 gubernatorial in red and the ones that voted Democratic in blue.  It’s obviously not a perfect match, but it’s enough of an overlap that it ought to give your average GOP strategist a little heartburn.

 

Further, 57 of Kemp’s counties lost population between 2012 and 2017, according to Census Bureau estimates, and most of the Kemp counties that grew did so at rates that lagged the state average and, critically, traditionally Democratic urban areas.

That’s not the end of Frost’s political math problems.  At this point, there’s a fair body of polling data to suggest that Millennials lean decidedly toward the Democratic Party.  Last year Pew Research put the percentage of Millennials who consider themselves “consistently” or “mostly” conservative at 12 percent versus 57 percent who put themselves in a liberal category; the remainder put themselves in a “mixed” category.

The picture may be a little better for conservatives among Millennials who are actually registered to vote: Pew put that split at 59-32 in favor of Team Blue.  But it also found a gender divide that may impact the Frost strategy.  Some 41 percent of Millennial males tilted Republican, while only 23 percent of Millennial females did so.

For the sake of what I know is a dubious illustration, let’s say that all the Millennial women in counties that went for Kemp are the type of good Christian conservative women Frost has in mind and that the Millennial women in the Abrams counties are all godless Commies.

As the actual math on this works out, the women in the Kemp counties already have a consistently higher birth rate than the ones in the Abrams county; in 2018, the Millennial birth rate in the Kemp counties was 79.8 births per 1,000 women versus 72.7 in the Abrams counties.

The problem is, the Kemp women are badly outnumbered.

In 2018, 647,492 Millennial women in the Kemp counties gave birth to 51,687 babies (who, in this scenario, will all grow up to be good Republican voters).  The 886,215 Millennial women in the Abrams counties delivered 64,453 baby Democrats.

To close that gap of nearly 13,000, Millennial women in the Kemp counties will have to up their game; just matching the Democratic output would require them to raise their annual birth rate to just under 100 births per 1,000 women.  This arithmetic is admittedly (shall we say) speculative, but it seems clear that the good Christian women in Frost’s political fantasies will have their work cut out for them.

Now, it turns out there may be a silver lining for Republicans in all this data.  The same Pew research that found that conservatives had a surplus of men also found that liberals had more women and might not have enough men to go around.  This creates an opportunity for those extra conservative males to try their luck with liberal women (friendly pro tip: leave the MAGA cap in the pick-up).

Of course, such a development might create an entirely new classification problem for the Department of Public Health.  DPH keeps track of all the state’s births and deaths and classifies them in different ways – including ethnicity and race (white, black, multiracial).  If a Republican cross-pollination initiative works, DPH might have to add a political classification – Republican, Democrat, or Multi-partisan.

2018 Georgia Election Takeaway: Rural Georgia ain’t going down easy

My Trouble in God’s Country research has been focused primarily on the widening economic, educational and health divides between Metro Atlanta and the rest of the state, especially rural Georgia.  The extent of the political divide has been obvious and well understood for a long time, and it’s not a topic I’ve paid much attention to.

But last Tuesday night, as I watched the election results come in and poked around on the AJC and Georgia Secretary of State’s websites for county-level returns, I noticed that Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams seemed to be lagging behind her party’s 2014 gubernatorial nominee, Jason Carter, in rural Georgia but outperforming him in Metro Atlanta and other urban areas.

Did that mean, I wondered, that urban and rural Georgians were continuing to grow even further apart politically as well as economically, educationally and health-wise?

To answer this question, I pulled top-of-ticket results for the last five general elections in Georgia – the 2010 gubernatorial election, 2012 presidential, 2014 gubernatorial, 2016 presidential, and 2018 gubernatorial.  Yeah, you can quibble with comparing gubernatorial and presidential results, but in this case I think it’s useful.

As a backdrop, it bears noting that virtually everybody agrees that population growth and demographic change are working to the advantage of Democrats and will eventually tip the state back to their advantage.  That’s inarguably true.  But against that backdrop, the first conclusion to be drawn from the 2018 results is this: Rural Georgia ain’t going down easy.

As of the results posted on the Secretary of State’s site Monday morning, November 12, Republican gubernatorial nominee Brian Kemp is leading in 130 mostly rural counties while Abrams is ahead in the other largely urban 29 counties.  The counties Kemp is carrying are home to 2.9 million registered voters versus 3.5 million in the Abrams counties.

With that kind of numerical advantage, you have to wonder how Abrams can be losing.  Two answers.  The first is turnout.  Kemp got a 61.5 percent turnout in his 130 counties versus 59.8 percent in the Abrams counties – not huge, but important in a race as close as this one is.  (As of this writing, the Secretary of State’s website is showing Kemp leading 1,975,843 to 1,916,943.)

The second obvious factor was margin.  Kemp is winning bigger in his small rural counties than Abrams is in her big urban ones.  Which is saying something, because Abrams is ahead by a margin of 66.7 percent to 33.3 percent, or 2:1.  Kemp, though, is running up the score in his 130 counties by a margin of 71.4 percent to 28.6 percent.

And there are some interesting subplots under those topline numbers.  In Metro Atlanta, for example, heavily black and Democratic Clayton County, on the southside, went overwhelmingly for Abrams: 88.2 percent to 11.8 percent for Kemp.  But turnout was only 54.2 percent.  Clayton County gave Abrams her largest margin of victory but one of her smallest turnouts.

On the north side of Metro Atlanta, meanwhile, heavily white and Republican Cherokee and Forsyth counties went for Kemp by a combined margin of 72.5 percent to 27.5 percent — and their combined voter turnout was 63.5 percent, nearly 10 points higher than Clayton County’s.  If Clayton County had matched the Cherokee-Forsyth turnout levels and maintained the same 88:12 split, Abrams would have netted another 12,000 votes.

But I meander.

Back to my original question: Is the political divide widening between Metro Atlanta and Rural Georgia?  The answer is an unequivocal yes – although you might not know it just to look at the statewide results.

In 2010, former Governor Roy Barnes, the Democrat who eight years earlier had surrendered the governor’s office to the first Republican winner in a couple of thousand years, was making a comeback attempt against Republican nominee Nathan Deal; Deal won handily, 55.2 percent to 44.8 percent.

(Caveat # 1: In this analysis, I am ignoring third party candidates and looking only at votes cast for the Democratic and Republican Party nominees.)

In the 2012 presidential election, GOP nominee Mitt Romney got 54 percent of the vote to 46 percent for President Barack Obama, the incumbent Democrat.  In the 2014 governor’s race, Governor Deal beat Democratic challenger Jason Carter by the same 54-to-46 margin.

In the 2016 presidential election, the margin actually got a little closer: Republican Donald Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton here in Georgia 52.7 percent to 47.3 percent, a margin of 5.3 percentage points.  And, of course, the margin in the current governor’s race is razor thin: Of the votes cast for either the Democrat or the Republican, Kemp currently has 50.8 percent of the vote to 49.2 percent for Abrams.

(Caveat # 2: The votes here in Georgia are, at this writing, still being counted, with an unknown number of provisional ballots still out.  We may or may not be headed for a recount if not a runoff.  Whatever the final results, they will obviously change the numbers I’m currently using, but I don’t think it will change the overall picture.)

So, over the past decade or so, the Republican margin of victory peaked at a little over 10 percentage points and has lately been shrinking down to a point or so.  But where those votes are coming from has shifted dramatically.

To get at this, I wallowed around in the data for a while and finally wound up breaking Georgia’s 159 counties down into four groups:

  • Big Democratic Counties. These are 16 counties that have at least 25,000 registered voters and have generally voted Democratic over the years. It includes the big ITP counties in Metro Atlanta and a couple of recent newcomers to the Blue column, Cobb and Gwinnett.  More than half the state’s registered voters live in these 16 counties.  In 2010, Barnes carried these counties over Deal by what seemed like a healthy 57.3 percent-to-42.7 percent margin.  This year, Abrams is leading Kemp 2:1 in these same 16 counties.  Put another way, these counties have shifted 9.8 percentage points further into the Democratic column.  One measure of this group’s population growth and rising clout is that Abrams already has more votes from these counties than Barnes and Deal combined in 2010.
  • Small Republican Counties. This is a group of 101 rural counties with fewer than 25,000 registered voters, and it’s pretty much a polar opposite of the Big D counties above.  In 2010, Deal carried these counties 2:1 over Barnes; this year, Kemp is ahead of Abrams just a hair shy of 3:1.  As a group, these counties are 7.7 percent redder now than they were in 2010.  The problem for Republicans is that many of these counties, especially in Middle and South Georgia, are hollowing out and losing population.  They may still be able to run up the score in these areas, but there’s not enough growth to keep up with the Big D counties.
  • Large & Middle-Sized Republican Counties. This is a group of 29 counties with at least 25,000 registered voters that are lining up with Kemp and other Republicans in this election cycle.  It includes most of the suburban and exurban counties surrounding Atlanta, as well as fast-growing communities in North Georgia and bedroom counties around the state (Oconee, Houston, Columbia, etc.).  The good news for Republicans is that these are for the most part growing counties and they are overwhelmingly red.  The less than good news is that they aren’t getting any redder; in fact, as a group, they’re 3.3 percentage points bluer this year than they were in 2010.  One example: Forsyth County gave 85.2 percent of its 2010 vote to Deal and only 14.8 percent to Barnes; this year, Kemp is carrying Forsyth with a relatively meager 71.6 percent to Abrams’s 28.4 percent.  That’s a 13.6 percentage point shift toward the Democrats in a decade.  Still, the GOP’s future in Georgia probably lies in retrenching in these counties.
  • Small Democratic Counties. These are 13 largely rural and heavily black counties with fewer than 25,000 registered voters that are still voting Democrat, but – like the Small Republican Counties discussed above – they’re actually trending Republican.  In 2010, they went nearly 60:40 for Barnes; this year, they’re a paler shade of blue and going 55:45 for Abrams.  If that’s good news for Republicans, the bad news is that, combined, these counties cast fewer than 90,000 votes.

So, urban Georgia is getting bluer and rural Georgia is getting redder.  This is obviously just a local example of the divide taking place all over the country and of the extreme polarization that has afflicted U.S. politics in recent years.

This chart shows Democratic and Republican votes by groups of counties for the 2010 and 2018 gubernatorial elections.

A key takeaway from this chart and analysis is this: If Brian Kemp hangs on and wins this election, he’ll owe his victory to two very disparate voting blocs of Republicans – very affluent, well-educated suburban and exurban voters on the one hand, and some of the least educated, poorest (and for that matter least healthy) voters in rural Georgia on the other.  My hunch is that their public policy priorities are very different, and balancing their interests will require a nifty bit of political magic.

Here’s the list of counties by the groups described above:

  • Big Democratic Counties: Bibb, Chatham, Clarke, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb Dougherty, Douglas, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry, Liberty, Muscogee, Newton, Richmond, Rockdale.
  • Big & Middle-Sized GOP Counties: Barrow, Bartow, Bryan, Bulloch, Camden, Carroll, Catoosa, Cherokee, Columbia, Coweta, Effingham, Fayette, Floyd, Forsyth, Glynn, Gordon, Hall, Houston, Jackson, Laurens, Lowndes, Oconee, Paulding, Spalding, Thomas, Troup, Walker, Walton, Whitfield.
  • Small Democratic Counties: Baldwin, Calhoun, Clay, Hancock, Jefferson, Macon, Randolph, Stewart, Sumter, Talbot, Taliaferro, Terrell, Warren.
  • Small Republican Counties: Appling, Atkinson, Bacon, Baker, Banks, Ben Hill, Berrien, Bleckley, Brantley, Brooks, Burke, Butts, Candler, Charlton, Chattahoochee, Chattooga, Clinch, Coffee, Colquitt, Cook, Crawford, Crisp, Dade, Dawson, Decatur, Dodge, Dooly, Early, Echols, Elbert, Emanuel, Evans, Fannin, Franklin, Gilmer, Glascock, Grady, Greene, Habersham, Haralson, Harris, Hart, Heard, Irwin, Jasper, Jeff Davis, Jenkins, Johnson, Jones, Lamar, Lanier, Lee, Lincoln, Long, Lumpkin, Madison, Marion, McDuffie, McIntosh, Meriwether, Miller, Mitchell, Monroe, Montgomery, Morgan, Murray, Oglethorpe, Peach, Pickens, Pierce, Pike, Polk, Pulaski, Putnam, Quitman, Rabun, Schley, Screven, Seminole, Stephens, Tattnall, Taylor, Telfair, Tift, Toombs, Towns, Treutlen, Turner, Twiggs, Union, Upson, Ware, Washington, Wayne, Webster, Wheeler, White, Wilcox, Wilkes, Wilkinson, Worth.

© Trouble in God’s Country 2018

Breaking News: Pierce County GOP opposes secession

Well, darn.

For a few days there I thought we had a major story brewing down in Pierce County.

Leaders of the Republican Party in that deep South Georgia community had included a question on Tuesday’s party primary ballot asking whether the “counties South of Macon (should) join together to form the 51st state of South Georgia.”

Going into Tuesday’s election, I would have bet a cup of coffee it had a fair chance of passing. I have spent a good bit of time in South Georgia over the years and folks down there can be a provincial lot.  Many don’t much care for Atlanta.

But in a perhaps surprising display of common sense, Pierce County’s Republicans voted better than two-to-one not to break away from North Georgia and Metro Atlanta.  The final tally was 703 ayes to 1,844 nays.

On a personal level, I’ll confess to a certain amount of disappointment a new State of South Georgia is now apparently off the table.

It probably would have moved my home state of Mississippi up in the national rankings overnight.

In one fell swoop, it would almost certainly have created the poorest, sickest and least educated state in the union. Folks in Mississippi (and for that matter Alabama) would have been able to look forward to saying “thank God for South Georgia” when all the new national education and economic rankings come out each year.

Alas, I guess that’s not to be.

More seriously, the Pierce County initiative, unsuccessful though it was, does beg a serious discussion about the relationship between South Georgia (and, more generally, rural Georgia) and Metro Atlanta in particular – especially given the way the head of the Pierce County Republican Party, Kay Godwin, framed the issue going into Tuesday’s election.

“We don’t get anything from Atlanta,” she told The Blackshear Times. “This is an effort to force them to pay attention to us.  We are not going to secede, but I hope it passes so maybe it will produce action across the state.”

As the talking heads on cable news like to say, there’s a lot there to unpack.  I’ve emailed Ms. Godwin and asked her to expand on her comments, but at this writing I have not heard back from her.

Let’s start with “we don’t get anything from Atlanta.”

That’s nonsense.

The reality, probably not fully appreciated in any region of the state, is that Metro Atlanta has been subsidizing the rest of the state — and South Georgia in particular — for decades.

The Fiscal Research Center at Georgia State University took a mind-numbingly deep dive into this issue nearly a decade ago and found, basically, that as of 2004 (the most recent year for which the author could get comprehensive data) the 10 core Metro Atlanta counties generated 51 percent of state government revenues and consumed only 37 percent of the state’s expenditures, leaving the rest for the other 149 counties.

That’s very much in line with my own Trouble in God’s Country (TIGC) research.  Working with federal IRS data that’s available online, I found that in 2013 the 12 counties I classify as Metro Atlanta incurred right at two-thirds of the state’s federal tax liability — $20.4 billion versus $10.6 billion for the other 147 counties – while consuming, to cite just one example, only about a third of the state’s Medicaid expenses. And that was with less than half the population: 4.65 million people in Metro Atlanta versus 5.34 million in the other 147 counties.

Let’s narrow that focus to South Georgia. Working with that same 2013 data, we find that the 56 counties that make up my TIGC South Georgia region incurred about $1.7 billion in 2013 federal income tax liability, or about 5.5 percent of the state’s total.  At the same time, it consumed about 17.2 percent of the state’s Medicaid benefits.  The level of subsidy implied by these numbers should cause local leaders to pause before they start complaining about Atlanta not doing anything for them.

Truth is, South Georgia (and for that matter most of rural Georgia) is in a world of hurt. In some respects these areas are literally dying, and the breadth and scope of the problems afflicting just about everything from the gnat line south demand some sort of comprehensive solution.

I’ve touched on economics in this piece, but I could make parallel cases using educational and healthcare data.

South Georgia is the least educated and least healthy region of the state, and those facts translate into both an inability to support itself and a dependency on public support for Medicaid and other services.

Atlanta will have to be involved — both in the form of state-driven remedies and as a source of necessary funding. The longer the problems go untended, the bigger — and more expensive — they will become.

The real problem for Ms. Godwin and South Georgia is that these societal and fiscal problems are coming to a head just as their worst political nightmares are also coming true.

For all of Georgia’s history — up until right about now — rural Georgia ruled the political roost. Rural areas generally were smart enough to elect wily young politicians to the legislature and leave them in place to hold Atlanta at bay.

But that’s changing.

By my count, just under half of the current House and Senate districts lie partly or wholly within my TIGC 12-county Metro Atlanta. With the next census and reapportionment, political power will concentrate even further in Metro Atlanta, probably giving it a majority of the legislature.

South Georgia can forget about ever again electing a governor.

What this means is that the political powers who will soon hold virtually all the purse strings may soon be asking why they should be diverting tax dollars generated in Metro Atlanta —which has its own problems — to South Georgia.

Given that reality, South Georgia probably needs a better strategy than demanding “action” and “attention” by threatening to secede.

Who knows? We might take you up on it.

© Trouble in God’s Country 2018