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Can Stacey Abrams Really Turn Georgia Blue?

Can Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee for governor in Georgia, win in November?

After the former Georgia House minority leader’s primary win on Tuesday, Democrats nationally are excited about the prospect of her becoming the first black woman elected governor in U.S. history. But Georgia is still a red state, and Republicans control all of the major statewide offices, like in much of the South. Abrams is going to be the underdog, but just how much of an underdog?

Wait a second, you might be thinking, Hillary Clinton lost Georgia by only 5 percentage points in 2016. And Georgia has been getting bluer. Is Abrams’s climb really that steep? Yes, it is. Georgia is one of the most “inelastic” states in the nation — its electorate is composed mostly of solid Democrats and solid Republicans, with very few persuadable voters. The result is that Democrats have a tendency to get close in the Peach State, but they have a very hard time getting over the hump to 50 percent plus one. That matters because, according to Georgia law, candidates can’t win an election with only a plurality–they must get over 50 percent of the vote. 1

Case in point: In the 2008, 2012 and 2016 presidential elections, as well as the 2014 U.S. Senate and gubernatorial elections, the Democratic candidate received between about 45 and 47 percent of the vote in Georgia every time. This is a fairly narrow range. That group of losing Democratic candidates includes Barack Obama (twice) and Hillary Clinton, but also Jason Carter and Michelle Nunn, the descendents of two titans in Georgia politics. (Carter is the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter; Nunn is the daughter of former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn.) Obama’s 2008 campaign tried to register and turn out liberal-leaning Georgians, particularly blacks, who may have stayed home in previous elections. Carter and Nunn tried — as Abrams’s Democratic primary opponent Stacey Evans suggested she would — to win over swing voters. The strategies all basically resulted in the same result.

The reason Democrats have trouble getting out of the mid-40s is relatively simple: Exit polls suggest that Democrats are consistently getting less than 25 percent of Georgia’s white voters. And while Georgia has grown more diverse, a majority of its residents (53 percent) are still non-Hispanic white.

So while I don’t want to diminish the challenges of a black woman being elected governor anywhere in America, particularly in the South, Abrams’s main barrier to winning may simply be being a Democrat.

But here’s the good news for Abrams: No Democrat has run an aggressive statewide campaign in Georgia2 in conditions that we’re likely to have this fall — a more diverse, urban Georgia and a bad environment for Republicans. (Trump is likely to be a drag on GOP candidates the way Obama was for Democrats in 2014.)

The math for Abrams looks (roughly) like this:

  1. Win 90 percent of the nonwhite vote. (That’s doable in part because the vast majority of that electorate is black voters.)
  2. Make sure nonwhites are 40 percent of the electorate through intense get-out-the-vote efforts. (That’s at least plausible because almost 40 percent of Georgia’s citizen voting-age population is nonwhite.)
  3. Win 25 percent of the white vote. (That’s doable without Abrams being particularly strong in rural areas because a huge part of the Georgia white population is in the Atlanta suburbs.)

What Abrams has to hope for (and for her campaign to create) is some combination of the two races Democrats won in 2017 in the South: the Virginia gubernatorial race and the Alabama U.S. Senate special election.

In Alabama, black voters were overwhelmingly for Democrat Doug Jones and turned out at higher rates than the rural whites who backed Republican Roy Moore. In Virginia, Democrat Ralph Northam did not do particularly well in rural areas of the state, but he benefited from huge margins in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. If Georgia eventually becomes blue, it would likely be because metro Atlanta became more liberal and kept growing.

Sure, it will help Abrams if she can limit the margins by which she loses in small-town Georgia. And if she loses ground compared with Clinton or Obama in those areas, she will have very little chance to win. But I think where Abrams can gain bigger margins among white voters is in two areas: the counties in the Atlanta area, such as Cobb and Gwinnett, that Clinton carried but fairly narrowly; and the areas around the state’s other liberal hubs, such as Athens (home of the University of Georgia), Macon and Savannah.

In other words, of course Abrams needs huge turnout among nonwhite voters. But that is necessary without being sufficient. She also needs some combination of white liberals in the state turning out at much higher rates than white conservatives and some white conservative voters in both metro Atlanta and outside of Atlanta to either swing to the Democrats or just not vote in November.

It’s easy to see Abrams getting within a few percentage points of Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle or Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who will face off in a GOP primary runoff in July, because of the anti-Republican wave we are seeing in elections all over the country. She could come closer to winning a big statewide race in Georgia than any Democrat since Zell Miller won a special election for the U.S. Senate in 2000. She could even win. But that still seems like a long shot.

Footnotes

  1. If no candidate wins a majority in November, the top two finishers will proceed to a runoff in December.

  2. Obama and Clinton didn’t contest it that hard, since they had other more winnable states to invest in.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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