Georgia is the keystone of the Deep South and its move into the Republican column has been a major part of the GOP’s Southern base. John McCain won the state 52% to 47% over Barack Obama in 2008; Mitt Romney won it by 53% to 45% in 2012. Moreover, all of the Peach State’s elected statewide officials are Republicans and both chambers of its legislature now have GOP majorities.
So it has come as some surprise that this year, an off-year when Democratic turnout is down and Republican hopes are up, that Georgia Democrats are within striking distance of winning the governorship and even a US Senate seat.
In the governor’s race, in an InsiderAdvantage poll released Friday, incumbent Gov. Nathan Deal (R) had 43.7% to 43.4% for Jason Carter, his Democratic challenger and the grandson of Jimmy Carter, with 4% for the Libertarian candidate. In the Real Clear Politics (RCP) average of five polls taken in September, Deal had 44%, to Carter’s 43.6%. Given that Deal won by 53% four years ago, it is beginning to look like he may lose out right, or may be saved by ending up in a runoff with Carter, since Democratic turnout is usually lower in runoffs.
Carter has campaigned as a moderate, avoiding taking liberal stands on hot button issues, such as taxes and the death penalty, and it has paid off. Pollster Matt Towery, CEO of InsiderAdvantage, SPR’s parent company, said, “The big news for Carter is that he now has 32 percent of the white vote in our survey. That reaches the magic number that Democrats have failed to receive in recent statewide races.”
Despite the Democrats’ unexpected strength in this election, it is not clear that the party is putting together a solid infrastructure. Tom Baxter, long-time Atlanta political writer, says, “I don’t see the Democrats building a base,” noting an absence of competitive legislative races. He adds, “If this election year shows anything, it is the failure of the Republicans, with effective control of state government for the past 11 years,” to produce a record that merits keeping them in the governor’s office. “If this were a blue or even a purple state,” says Baxter, “Deal would be defeated for sure.”
In the Senate race, for an open seat being vacated by Saxby Chambliss (R), GOP primary winner David Perdue, who benefits from borrowed name ID from his cousin, former governor Sonny Perdue, is running somewhat better against Democrat Michelle Nunn, daughter of former US Sen. Sam Nunn (D). Perdue got 47% in the InsiderAdvantage survey to 43% for Nunn, with 3% for the Libertarian candidate. Perdue’s RCP average was 46% to Nunn’s 42.8%. The race is still close, however, and could also go to a runoff.
The reason for this apparent Democratic trend in Georgia is most often attributed to shifting demographics, with gains for non-white voters, who generally vote Democratic, and losses for whites, the majority of whom make up the GOP base. Non-white voters include African Americans, Hispanics and Asians.
In 1994, 77% of Georgia’s registered voters were white; in 2014, that number is 58%, about a 1-point decline a year in the white share of the electorate. In Cobb and Gwinnett counties, composed of Atlanta suburbs that have long been Republican bastions, there are fewer whites now than there were in the year 2000. As a result, the GOP now gets in the upper 50s’ percentile, compared to the 60s a decade ago.
In addition, there are more voters who have moved to Georgia from other states, often from more liberal areas. Many of these in-migrants are young people who move to Atlanta, which – like most large cities – fosters more liberal attitudes, especially on social issues. At the same time, the Republican Party’s constituency is aging. In the 2012 Republican Primary, for example, two-thirds of the voters were 50 years old or older, voters who tend to be more conservative, socially and otherwise. This is echoed in the governor’s race, where Deal is 72 while Carter is 39.
But besides demographic factors, issues peculiar to this election are giving Gov. Deal problems. Critics charge he removed officials from the State Ethics Commission to prevent them from investigating problems in his 2010 campaign. The issue has simmered for several years. In addition, the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics places Georgia at the top of the states in unemployment, with a jobless rate of 8.2% in August, compared to a national rate of 6.1%. And the GOP is in the midst of a “voter suppression” controversy. Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp accused the New Georgia Project, an essentially Democratic group, of fraudulent registrations, but found only 30 questionable registration applications out of some 85,000 submitted. The New Georgia Project also contends that more than half of the applications it has filed could not be located on the voter rolls.
In the Senate race, Perdue is having an easier time than Gov. Deal. In part that’s because it’s easier for Perdue to tie Nunn to President Obama since federal issues are involved. Obama remains very unpopular in the state, with a 41% approval rating to 57% who disapprove. Indeed, when the President recently traveled to Atlanta, neither Nunn nor Carter was on hand at the airport to greet him. (Michelle Obama, however, did campaign for Nunn earlier.) Nevertheless, the Perdue-Nunn race is still too close for comfort for Georgia’s supposedly dominant GOP. Stay tuned.