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Fulton County Elections Director Richard Barron speaks to reporters about the ballot count in Atlanta, Georgia, on November 4.
Brynn Anderson/AP

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Why Georgia was so competitive for Democrats this year

How Georgia became a swing state in 2020.

Georgia could be on track to vote for its first Democratic presidential candidate since 1992. With about 98 percent of the vote counted Thursday, former Vice President Joe Biden is only about 0.07 percentage points behind President Donald Trump — and the remaining ballots are expected to favor the Democrat.

It’s striking that this traditionally conservative state appears poised to elect Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris, but the result is also notable given the state will be the site of two competitive runoff elections — featuring Democrats Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock — that could decide which party controls the US Senate.

It’s also a result that defies conventional wisdom.

About a month ago, I talked to Republican pollster Whit Ayres, who predicted that even with the rapid demographic change taking place in reliably Republican-leaning Sun Belt states, it would take at least one more political cycle to turn Texas and Georgia into true swing states.

Ayres’s prediction turned out to be true for Texas, where Republicans had a good night on Tuesday. But it seems there could be a surprising result in Georgia.

Supporters of President Trump demonstrate outside the State Farm Arena, where Fulton County has its vote-counting operation, on November 5.
John Bazemore/AP
Democratic and Republican representatives review absentee ballots at the Fulton County Election preparation Center in Atlanta, Georgia, on November 4.
John Bazemore/AP

A traditionally Republican Southern state, Georgia has been growing more competitive for Democrats year after year, buoyed by the growing Atlanta metro area. Just 5 percentage points — or about 211,000 votes — separated Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in the 2016 election. In 2018, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams came within less than 55,000 votes of winning the governor’s mansion.

There’s a simple explanation, according to University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock, a Georgia politics expert: In Georgia, there are conservative rural voters and there more diverse Democratic urban and suburban voters, who are becoming more reliably Democratic with time.

“Urban areas are growing, and as they grow, Democrats inch closer and closer to getting 50 percent,” Bullock said.

The political influence of Atlanta’s suburbs, explained

The pockets of blue visible below on Georgia’s 2020 electoral map are around its major cities of Atlanta, Savannah, Columbus, and Augusta. But political observers say there’s no question Atlanta wields the most political power.

There are 10 suburban counties in the metro Atlanta area that are all blue.

A map of Georgia divided by county; most of the counties are shaded red, but there are four clusters of blue in the counties surrounding Atlanta, Savannah, Columbus, and Augusta. Vox/Decision Desk

Some of these counties are where much of the outstanding vote in 2020 is concentrated; they’re a large part of the reason Biden is doing so well, and why Senate Democratic candidates also had relatively good nights in Georgia.

“Counties and suburbs of Atlanta are moving at light speed away from Republicans,” said Cook Political Report Senate editor Jessica Taylor, who rated both Georgia races as toss-ups. “Trump has accelerated a more natural evolution, but that has made it hard.”

Atlanta’s diversifying suburbs were already worrisome for Republicans before 2020, but they appear to be the epicenter of Democratic strength this year. The GOP is also watching as existing trends are being hastened by a combination of white suburban voters moving away from Trump and increased turnout among Black voters.

The metro Atlanta area is booming, and a lot of people moving there are young and diverse. Increasingly, they’re voting Democratic.

Analysis of the Black youth vote from Tufts University’s Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement found that 90 percent of Black voters ages 18 to 29 cast ballots for Biden in Georgia, compared to just 33 percent of young white voters in that state. The center also found that Biden did significantly better in Georgia counties with a higher concentration of young Black voters.

Between 2010 and 2019, the area’s population shot up from about 5.3 million people to over 6 million, according to data from the US Census, reported by Curbed. That growth put the Atlanta metro area fourth in growth nationwide, behind Houston and Dallas, Texas, and Phoenix, Arizona (Senate seats in Texas and Arizona were also considered Democratic targets this year).

Rev. Raphael Warnock, Democratic candidate for Georgia Senate, and Stacey Abrams campaign on November 3. Abrams’s group Fair Fight and other voting rights groups have been putting a lot of effort into registering Black voters at high rates this year.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

“Every area in metro Atlanta is growing,” state Rep. Angelika Kausche, a Democrat, recently told Vox. “People come here for the education, for the schools, for the quality of life.” That has brought legions of diverse, younger voters to Atlanta’s metro area. As the New York Times recently reported, “white residents now make up fewer than three in five voters in Georgia.”

Abrams’s group Fair Fight and other voting rights groups like the New Georgia Project have been putting a ton of effort into registering and turning out Black voters at high rates this year. And those efforts have been successful. The state has already hit record registration levels, with about 7.6 million voters registered. And since early voting started, more than 2.7 million voters have cast ballots — at least 1 million of whom were Black.

Those results are a reminder, as Abrams told Vox in a recent email interview, that “Georgia has by far the largest percentage of Black voters of any battleground state.”

“We’re going to have record turnout,” Abrams told Vox. “There is tremendous enthusiasm, particularly on the Democratic side, and Black voters and voters of color writ large have been hit hard by the pandemic and economic crises that Donald Trump has so badly mishandled.”

Georgia will take center stage in national politics for the next few months

All eyes — and fundraising dollars — are about to shift to Georgia for the next two months.

It’s now increasingly likely that both of Georgia’s Senate races will go to a runoff election, set for January 5, 2021. With votes still to be counted in Georgia, particularly in the Democratic-leaning Atlanta suburbs, it Republican Sen. David Perdue has not hit the 50 percent threshold he needed to avoid a runoff race with Democrat Jon Ossoff.

The prolonged Ossoff/Perdue matchup will be runoff No. 2 for Georgia voters. Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Democrat candidate Rev. Raphael Warnock are also headed to a runoff in the special election for a Senate seat vacated in 2019 by retiring Sen. Johnny Isakson. That special election initially featured 20 candidates in an all-party “jungle primary,” and with the vote set to be split between so many candidates, it was all but guaranteed it would go to a runoff.

Sen. Kelly Loeffler, Rev. Raphael Warnock, Sen. David Perdue, and Jon Ossoff.
Justin Sullivan; Jessica McGowan; Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call; Paras Griffin via Getty Images

The runoffs are a direct result of population growth — particularly amid the influx to the Atlanta suburbs, political observers in Georgia have been watching elections get closer and closer. The 2018 governor’s race, for example, was a scare for Georgia Republicans. And Georgia provided congressional Democrats some good news during an otherwise dismal night; House Democrats appear to be on track to flip the state’s Seventh Congressional District, and the potential runoffs are the only ray of hope Senate Democrats have left to win back a majority.

That said, the Senate runoffs could become difficult for Democrats: The party’s strategy in Southern states like Georgia has generally involved harnessing the large voter turnout that typically accompanies presidential elections. It could be hard for the candidates to muster the same level of enthusiasm for these runoff elections, a difficulty that has often given Republicans the edge in past years.

“We haven’t had many general election runoffs. The one constant has been Republicans won all of them,” Bullock told Vox. “Republicans have done a better job of getting their voters back to the polls.”

But, he added: “There being two high-profile runoffs this year may help Democrats get their voters out.”

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