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Can Obama paint Georgia blue?

By Dr. Charles Bullock

April 25, 2011

Recent reports indicate that the Obama brain trust sees Georgia as a target of opportunity in 2012.  Is the Obama camp scenario reasonable in a state in which Republicans swept all the constitutional offices in 2010 with no Democrat managing even 44 percent of the vote?

In 2008, Barack Obama attracted a larger share of the Georgia vote than any Democratic presidential nominee since Jimmy Carter in 1980.  Obama got 47 percent of Georgia’s vote, a figure matched by the other two Democrats running statewide that year.  Those two Democrats, Senate candidate Jim Martin and PSC nominee Jim Powell, forced runoffs.  Powell actually led Bubba McDonald in November by 23,000 votes although he could not convert that showing into a majority in the December runoff.  

The Obama campaign hit its mark in 2008.  Their plan for winning the Peach State rested on the hope that Bob Barr, the Libertarian presidential nominee who had represented Georgia’s Seventh District from 1995-2003, could poll at least six percent of the vote.  If Barr managed six percent of the vote, 47 percent would suffice to win the state’s electors since the runoff provision does not extend to presidential contests.  Barr did not do his part, failing to attract even one percent of the vote allowing John McCain to win by five percentage points. 

As has been suggested previously by this writer, demography favors Democrats over the long run in Georgia.  Republican success rests on attracting white voters almost exclusively.  For two generations the black vote has gone to Democrats often at ratios of nine to one or greater.  Latinos and Asian Americans, whose numbers the census show continue to grow rapidly, also prefer Democrats to Republicans.  The 2010 census showed the combined minority population in Georgia approaching 40 percent.  If Republicans do not come up with a message that has appeal beyond white voters ultimately there will not be enough whites for them to win statewide.  

While the long term prospects for the GOP appear ominous, is 2012 the year of reckoning?  The white share of the registered voters currently stands at 60.9 percent, down from 74 percent in 1996 but still well above half.  For Barack Obama to put Georgia in the Democratic column, he would need strong support from African Americans like he received in 2008 when they cast a record 30 percent of the ballots.  In addition to high black turnout, Obama would also need almost 30 percent of the white vote.  In 2008, 23 percent of Georgia whites voted for Obama, the same share as John Kerry had attracted four years earlier.   Georgia Democrats competing statewide in 2010 did worse than their party’s two previous presidential nominees as approximately four in five white voters preferred Republican candidates.

In addition to needing to reverse recent patterns of declining interest in the Democratic Party among white voters, the Obama reelection campaign may have to devote more resources to mobilizing African-American turnout than in 2008.  Frequently black participation peaks in the breakthrough election in which an African American first wins a position.  For example, black turnout in Atlanta has never come close to the level reached when Maynard Jackson won the 1973 runoff to become the city’s first black chief executive.  African-American turnout also hit levels not subsequently equaled in the elections that saw the first black mayoral victories in Albany, Augusta and Savannah.

If Georgia is to end up in the “blue” column in 2012, the Obama campaign will have to invest more resources than in 2008.   It will have to replicate its very successful get-out-the-vote program in the black community but also overcome the more daunting challenge of convincing an increasingly GOP-oriented white electorate to vote for a Democrat.  With whites now voting in overwhelming numbers for Republicans not just for president but also for statewide offices, Congress, and the General Assembly, getting sufficient support for Obama will require some voters to act in ways that they will find alien.  

Charles S. Bullock, III
Richard B. Russell Professor of Political Science
Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor
Co-author of  Georgia Politics in a State of Change and The New Politics of the Old South.


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