Georgia turned “blue” in the presidential election this year for the first time since 1992. It’s also one of the few places where Democrats picked up a Republican-held U.S. House seat. And in January, of course, Georgia will hold two U.S. Senate runoffs that will give Democrats their last chance to seize total control of Congress.
But even as Republicans vainly dispute Biden’s win in Georgia, and operatives and donors in both parties prepare for the epic January battle, there’s an interpretive dispute breaking out over what really happened in Georgia in the general election, and what it means for Democrats there and elsewhere in the future. Data journalist David Shor initially raised the issue in an interview with New York’s Eric Levitz:
If you look at county-level returns in Georgia, it’s pretty clear that nonwhite voters, as a share of the electorate, decreased at a time when the nonwhite share of the state’s population probably increased. Relative to the electorate as a whole, nonwhite turnout fell. And then, among nonwhite voters who turned out, support for the Democratic nominee fell. That’s just not consistent with nonwhite turnout being the decisive factor. The only reason we won is that there were these very large swings toward us among college-educated white people in the Atlanta suburbs.
Now the data team at the New York Times is making the same argument looking at the same numbers:
Joe Biden put Georgia in the Democratic column for the first time since 1992 by making huge gains among affluent, college-educated and older voters in the suburbs around Atlanta, according to an Upshot analysis of the results by precinct. The Black share of the electorate fell to its lowest level since 2006, based on an Upshot analysis of newly published turnout data from the Georgia secretary of state. In an election marked by a big rise in turnout, Black turnout increased, too, but less than that of some other groups.
As it happens, some Georgia Democrats are pushing back on the Shor/Times data, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “A growing number of voters are refusing to identify themselves by race, and some of them are certainly Black voters. That could create a 3% or so difference between what the data says and who actually showed up at the polls, Democrats say.”
This may sound like a nerd fight over numbers in a hazy environment, partly caused by a general consensus not to rely on this year’s shaky exit polls. But the lessons both Shor and the Times take from the racial turnout data have profound implications for how Democrats handle the January runoffs, and for a general understanding of what’s happening in Georgia and similar states overall. Here’s how Shor puts it:
I think it’s important for us to be clear-eyed about what happened in 2020. We’re not going to know exactly what happened until there’s more analysis of precinct results. But I think that the county-level data we have tells a pretty clear big-picture story. Which is that we won the presidency because, one, while we lost non-college-educated white voters, we kept those defections to a relatively low level, and two, a bunch of moderate Republicans who had voted for Trump in 2016 decided to vote for Biden this time.
The Times is even blunter:
The findings suggest that Mr. Biden’s win in Georgia may not yet herald a new progressive majority in what was a reliably red state, as Democrats still depend on the support of traditionally conservative voters to win statewide.
These claims sure sound like a challenge to the general belief going into this cycle that Georgia and similar southern states were moving “blue” because of a combination of Black voter mobilization and a general shift to the left among highly educated suburbanites of all races.
As a fellow believer in that “progressive New South” interpretation, I’d offer my own pushback to the revisionist idea that Biden carried the state by appealing to Republicans who won’t vote for other Democrats down ballot, or even for president if Trump’s not on the ballot. All along, the premise advanced by Stacey Abrams and like-minded Georgia Democratic leaders was that a majority could be forged from a multiracial coalition centered in Atlanta’s rapidly diversifying (racially, economically, and culturally) suburbs. Abrams herself, though best known nationally as a voting rights and Black-voter-mobilization advocate, improved on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 performance in the north Atlanta suburbs in her own near-miss 2018 gubernatorial campaign. And the idea that Biden’s success in those same suburbs is a sui generis product of Never Trump Republicans temporarily leaving their party in that one race is belied by the fact that two legendarily Republican suburban counties, Cobb and Gwinnett, ejected Republican local government executives for Democrats for the first time in a generation. This isn’t just about Trump, though he has obviously given Democrats suburban opportunities they didn’t previously enjoy.
Yes, relatively low Black turnout and marginally lower Democratic vote shares among nonwhite voters are a problem for Democrats in Georgia and many other states. But that should not become the basis for some sort of blue-dog redux theory in which Georgia Democrats pursue “conservative” suburban voters with conservative policies, at the expense of Black voter interests and resources. That would be a terrible U-turn for a Democratic coalition that is just now beginning to reach its potential for creating a party in which there are no longer any second-class, taken-for-granted voters. If anything, the nonwhite-voter-mobilization problems Shor and the Times identified, assuming they aren’t a statistical illusion, may provide an opportunity for Democrats in January, and certainly in 2022, when Stacey Abrams is likely to run for governor again. But in the longer run, the once-elusive dream of a southern Democratic Party that doesn’t only have eyes for white conservative voters is more than worth the effort.