In 2008, Barack Obama won about 47 percent of the vote in Georgia, a huge improvement for the Democrats from four years earlier, when John Kerry received just 41 percent in the state. And with the Atlanta metro area booming in population, it seemed like a state that hadn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1992 was about to turn blue — or at least purple. But it didn’t. Instead, Georgia was stuck in swing-state-in-waiting status. Obama dipped to 45 percent in 2012 — and Democrats seemed capped at exactly that number. The party’s candidates for U.S. Senate and governor in 2014 won 45 percent of the Georgia vote, as did Hillary Clinton in 2016.
That is, until 2018, when Stacey Abrams broke through the 46 percent ceiling and hit 48.8 percent in her gubernatorial campaign. And this year, of course, Joe Biden won the state with 49.5 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, U.S. Senate candidate Jon Ossoff got 48.0 percent, and is now headed to a runoff election. Georgia’s special election for its other U.S. Senate seat is also headed to a runoff, with the combined total for the Democratic candidates at 48.4 percent.
So how did Georgia go from light red to blue — or at the very least, purple?
The answer is pretty simple: The Atlanta area turned really blue in the Trump era. Definitions differ about the exact parameters of the Atlanta metropolitan area, but 10 counties are part of a governing collaborative called the Atlanta Regional Commission. Almost 4.7 million people live in those 10 counties, or around 45 percent of the state’s population.
Until very recently, the Atlanta area wasn’t a liberal bastion. There was a Democratic bloc that long controlled the government within the city limits of Atlanta and a Republican bloc that once dominated the suburbs and whose rise was chronicled in historian Kevin Kruse’s 2005 book “White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism.”
In 2012, Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney each won five of the 10 counties in the Atlanta Regional Commission. But in 2016, Clinton won eight of the 10 counties. In 2018, Abrams won those eight counties by larger margins than Clinton, and Biden then improved on Abrams’s margins in most of them. For example, Romney carried Gwinnett — an Atlanta-area suburban county that is the second-largest county in the state — by 9 percentage points in 2012. But then Clinton won there by 6 points in 2016, Abrams won by 14 points in 2018, and this year, Ossoff won by 16 and Biden won by 18. Likewise, in Cobb County, another large Atlanta-area suburban county, Romney won by 12 points in 2012, but then Clinton carried it by 2, Abrams by 10, Ossoff by 11 and Biden by 14. (We’ll come back to Biden doing slightly better than Ossoff and what that might mean for the runoffs.)
Those are big gains in big counties. And there are other indications that suburban Atlanta is trending blue. Parts of Cobb County are in the district of Rep. Lucy McBath, who in 2018 flipped a U.S. House seat that the GOP had held for decades. (She won reelection this year, too.) Meanwhile, Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux flipped a U.S. House seat that includes parts of Gwinnett County, one of only a handful of seats that Democrats won control of this year. Republican sheriff candidates in Cobb and Gwinnett counties were both defeated in this November’s election. And Gwinnett’s five-person county commission is now made up of five Democrats, after Democrats flipped three seats on the commission this year.
Cobb and Gwinnett are not suburbs in the coded way the political media often invokes them as a synonym for “areas slightly outside of the city limits of major cities where lots of middle-class white people live.” Gwinnett County is 35 percent non-Hispanic white, 30 percent Black, 22 percent Hispanic and 13 percent Asian. Cobb County is 51 percent non-Hispanic white, 29 percent Black, 13 percent Hispanic and 6 percent Asian.
Democrats have also made gains in the more urban DeKalb and Fulton counties, which both include parts of the city of Atlanta and were already pretty Democratic leaning. In Fulton, which is about 45 percent Black and Georgia’s most populous county, Obama won in 2012 by 30 points, Clinton by 41, Abrams by 46, Ossoff by 42 and Biden by 46. In DeKalb, which is 55 percent Black and the state’s fourth-largest county, Obama won by 57 points, Clinton by 63, Abrams by 68, Ossoff by 64 and Biden by 67.
There is a third shift happening, too: Democrats are losing by less in the more conservative-leaning, exurban parts of Atlanta. In Cherokee County, Georgia’s seventh-largest county and one that is nearly 80 percent white, Obama lost by 58 points, Clinton by 49, Abrams by 46 and Biden by 39.
“Exurbs are where a big chunk of the GOP base is. And you can’t win Georgia [as a Republican] without running up the margins there,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution political reporter Greg Bluestein told me.
We should emphasize, though, that there are limits in how precise we can be in describing these shifts. Trump did better than in 2016 in some heavily Black Atlanta precincts (while still losing them overwhelmingly), according to a New York Times analysis. So it could be the case that many of Biden’s gains are among non-Black Atlanta-area voters, although it’s important to emphasize that many Black people in the Atlanta area live in racially mixed areas. County and precinct analyses have some limitations, and more detailed research will help us nail down exact shifts among demographic groups.
But overall, the story is clear: Biden won Georgia because he did really well in the Atlanta area, far better than Obama eight years ago and significantly better than Clinton, too. Biden won about 65 percent of the two-party share of the votes in these 10 Atlanta-area counties, up from Clinton’s 59 percent. He also gained in the other 149 Georgia counties in Georgia, but it was smaller: Clinton received about 34 percent of the vote outside the Atlanta area, while Biden received about 37 percent.
The more complicated question then is not how Georgia went from light red to blue, but why Democrats gained so much ground in the Atlanta area. Here are four theories, ranked in order of importance in my view:
That the Democrats flipped Cobb and Gwinnett counties with Trump on the ballot, gained ground in 2018 and then improved on their 2018 performance in 2020 suggests that anti-Trump sentiment is a pretty big factor here. Abrams, Biden, Clinton and Ossoff are four very different political figures, but all made gains relative to the Democratic candidates who ran in the cycle before, suggesting these gains aren’t really about the individual Democratic candidates. Additionally, all four did better in the Atlanta area than Obama — and it’s hard to argue any of those four (let alone all four) are better politicians than Obama.
In fact, the anti-Trump theory hinges on two things: 1) Some people in the Atlanta area shifted from voting Republican to voting Democratic; and 2) Some shifted from not voting at all to voting (for Democrats).
But here’s why that might not be the whole story: Democrats didn’t just start making gains in the Atlanta area in 2016 …
The Atlanta area is getting more liberal
From the 2004 presidential election to the 2012 election, Democratic margins grew by double digits in nine of the 10 counties that make up the Atlanta metro area. (Remember that Obama did much better than Kerry.) So Atlanta was already getting more liberal before Trump was a major political figure.
What might help explain that shift? First of all, the share of people in the Atlanta area who are Asian, Black and/or Hispanic has increased dramatically in the last two decades, and those three groups tend to vote for Democratic candidates.
Take Gwinnett County. It was 67 percent non-Hispanic white in 2000; it is now around 35 percent white. Likewise, Cobb County was 72 percent white in 2000, 62 percent in 2010 and is about 50 percent white now. In part because of those changes in the Atlanta metro area, the share of the voting-eligible population in Georgia that is white dropped from 68 percent in 2000 to 58 percent in 2018, according to Pew Research Center. That drop is the biggest decline in the percentage of white voters in all but eight other states.
“Demographic change is likely a big part of the story, combined with higher participation from some of the faster-growing groups,” said Tom Bonier, who runs a Democratic-leaning political data firm called TargetSmart.
Secondly, the Atlanta metro area is one of the fastest growing in the country. It’s got a pretty strong job market that is drawing people from other states. So it’s likely that many of the 2016 and 2020 Atlanta-area Democratic voters either weren’t living in the area in 2012 or weren’t of voting age then (e.g., the children of people who have moved to Atlanta in the past two decades). In other words, these aren’t people shifting to the Democratic Party because of Trump — these are Democrats who just happened to show up in Atlanta’s electorate at the time of Trump’s rise. They probably would not have backed Republican presidential nominee Sen.Ted Cruz either.
“Existing white voters [in Georgia] are being replaced by younger whites and out-of-state transplants who are more progressive,” said Bernard Fraga, a political scientist at Atlanta’s Emory University who studies voter turnout.
It’s hard to precisely quantify these voting shifts caused by demographic and population trends and really hard to determine if they would have happened in a world without Trump. But at least one Georgia Democrat has been saying for years that the party could turn the state blue by courting recent transplants and the growing population of people of color …
Stacey Abrams had a playbook for turning Georgia blue
Abrams won 1.9 million votes in 2018, almost double the 1.1 million votes of Georgia’s 2014 Democratic gubernatorial nominee. Biden won almost 2.5 million votes, compared to Clinton’s 1.9 million. There are probably lots of reasons for the increased number of Democratic voters — particularly anti-Trump sentiment and Georgia’s changing demographics. Plus, Republican voter turnout in Georgia also surged this cycle, so maybe the Trump era has just boosted turnout among all groups. All that said, it’s worth isolating the role of Abrams, because she has executed a specific, turnout-based strategy in Georgia for nearly a decade and has pushed for the Democratic Party to join her in implementing it.
In 2014, Abrams, then a member of the Georgia House of Representatives, co-created a group called the New Georgia Project that focused on getting people of color in the state who haven’t previously participated in the electoral process to vote. In 2017 and 2018, Abrams ran for governor and diverted from the normal Southern Democrat strategy of centering a campaign on winning as many white swing voters as possible. Abrams did try to win white swing voters, but also invested heavily in boosting turnout among voters of all races in the Atlanta area and among Black people in particular in the state’s more rural areas.
After her narrow defeat in the governor’s race, Abrams implored her party to invest in Georgia for the 2020 presidential election. In September 2019, Abrams’s top political adviser, Lauren Groh-Wargo, publicly released a 16-page memo dubbed “The Abrams Playbook” that laid out why Georgia was a prime pickup opportunity if Democrats concentrated on boosting turnout among people of color in the Atlanta area.
And by the end of the 2020 campaign, with polls suggesting Georgia was close, Democrats went all in on the state, as Abrams had been calling for. The Democratic super PAC Priorities USA, which had been focused only on Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, expanded its operations to Georgia. On the day before the election, Biden’s campaign sent one of its most important surrogates to the Atlanta area: Obama.
It is really hard to know how much Abrams’s efforts mattered. Perhaps anti-Trump sentiment and more liberal people moving to the Atlanta were by far the most important factors in boosting Democratic turnout in Georgia. But it’s hard to dismiss Abrams’s role — after all, Democrats won Georgia, and pretty much exactly the way she laid out.
Joe Biden may have had a unique appeal
Biden did a bit better than both Ossoff and Abrams in the Atlanta area. So it’s possible that Georgia shifted from very purple (2018) to just barely blue (at least at the presidential level in 2020) because the former vice president is kind an ideal candidate for Georgia — popular with Black voters but also more of a draw for some moderate white voters than the 33-year-old Ossoff or a Black woman like Abrams.
On the other hand, the distinguishing factor between the 2020 presidential race and other recent contests could have been distaste for Trump. Maybe Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Kamala Harris or any other person running against Trump would have also carried the state if he or she were the Democratic nominee.
What does this very blue Atlanta mean for future Georgia elections — not only for the Jan. 5 runoffs for the U.S. Senate seats, but also Abrams’s likely 2022 gubernatorial campaign and subsequent presidential elections?
It’s hard to answer this question, because the Democratic lean in the Atlanta area that made Georgia really competitive for Democrats happened when Trump was the defining figure in American politics. So it’s possible that, without Trump in the White House, Democrats will once again be stuck earning 46 to 48 percent of the vote in Georgia. Take the U.S. Senate runoff elections.
Are there some voters there who didn’t back Trump but were comfortable with a more traditional Republican like Sen. David Perdue. Does that hold true in the runoff? It’s the same question in the state’s Senate special election. The Democrats narrowly lost the popular vote there, so are there some Georgia voters who are willing to support Republicans like Rep. Doug Collins and Sen. Kelly Loeffler (the leading Republicans in that race) but not Trump?
Remember, the Democrats are losing badly in most areas of Georgia outside of Atlanta — and the state is only competitive if the Atlanta area stays as blue as it has been during the Trump era. If some Atlanta-area voters no longer view Trump as the defining figure of the GOP, do they go back to the GOP in the Senate runoffs and in subsequent elections?
We don’t know the answer to this question now and may not for a few election cycles. For now, it’s not clear if Georgia is a swing state, a state that swung once or something in between.
CORRECTION (Nov. 19, 2020, 10:40 a.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly described the 2020 election results for the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners, stating that only one Republican had been on the board and one seat had flipped. In fact, Democrats flipped three seats on the five-person board in 2020, leaving it with five Democrats and no Republicans.