The Changing Politics of Georgia

The Peach State has long been a bastion of Republican strength in the South since the early 2000s, when the Democratic party was ousted from power after Zell Miller, Roy Barnes, and Max Cleland left their offices in quick succession. From 1992 to 2020, no Democratic Presidential candidate won the state, and no Democrats have won any statewide races since 2002. 

The collapse of the Democratic party in the state can be attributed to the rural realignment towards Republicans occurring faster than the suburban realignment occurred towards Democrats, an event catalyzed by the 1994 Republican Revolution. This aided and enabled the GOP's meteoric rise in Georgia politics, gaining power by winning the rural white vote and dominating the Atlanta suburban vote. Democratic strength, meanwhile, was located in inner Atlanta and in the majority and plurality-Black areas in the southwest and center of the state, and for a while, any statewide victories they achieved would be through clawing back large portions of the ancestrally Democratic rural vote. 

Below, we can see a breakdown of Bill Clinton's 1992 victory in Georgia, where strong margins in urban Atlanta and rural Black counties allowed him to break the Republican firewall anchored by the suburbs and carry the state.

1992 Georgia PVI by County -- Presidential Election

The suburbs around Atlanta, such as Cobb and Gwinnett, were Republican bastions at the time, and the GOP also did well in rural areas in the north and south. Democratic strength was located in Atlanta, was well as in the majority-Black counties in the southwest and rural areas in the center of the state. This Democratic strength, however, was on the wane in Georgia, and Clinton's win kicked off the start of a decade that would see the last gasp of the Georgia Democratic Party's statewide successes, with Republican strength in the state growing and foretelling the establishment of their complete dominance in the state. 

After Miller left office in 2005, Republicans solidified their hold on the state's politics, and for the next decade, Democrats would consistently hover between 40-45% of the vote, stuck on the periphery in major elections without ever really threatening the GOP's statewide dominance. An analysis of Obama's 2012 statewide loss, mapped by PVI below, shows the stark reality Georgia Democrats faced -- their bases of Fulton and DeKalb were nowhere near powerful enough to counter the blood-red rurals or the Republican vote in the Atlanta suburbs and exurbs.

2012 Georgia PVI by county -- Presidential Election

Obama did well in Atlanta and the the majority-Black areas in the southwest and middle of the state, but Romney's dominance in rural white counties and the Atlanta suburbs once again ensured that Georgia voted for the Republican ticket by a comfortable margin.

This trend continued into 2016; although there was briefly talk of flipping Georgia blue that year, it was a fantastical bubble cruelly pierced by another convincing defeat for Hillary Clinton in the state. While she lost ground in rural areas throughout the state compared to Obama, she made significant gains in the Atlanta suburbs, causing Georgia to be one of the few states to swing towards the Democrats in 2016. Although the swing was insufficient to turn the state blue, the early indicators of a Democratic surge in the state were visible -- for example, Cobb and Gwinnett became significantly more Democratic; Cobb's PVI matched the nation's, and Gwinnett, for the first time in decades, was more Democratic than the rest of the nation.

2016 Georgia PVI by county -- Presidential Election

The biggest gift to Georgia Democrats may thus have been Donald Trump, as he succeeded in doing what Democrats had failed to achieve for a decade and accelerated the suburban shift left to counter the rural swing right. In a major political shift that has upended the balance of power between the two parties, the ring of suburban and exurban counties encircling Atlanta, with large amounts of white college-educated voters, began sprinting to the left over the course of the Trump presidency. The increasing diversification of suburbs has also contributed; for example, Cobb is now 51% white while Gwinnett is majority-minority, and this has resulted in the two counties shifting far to the left of not just the state, but the nation as a whole. 

The first signs of a realignment were visible in Jon Ossoff's narrow loss to Karen Handel in the 2017 special election, but the clearest warning signs for the Georgia GOP were in Stacey Abrams' stunningly close 2018 gubernatorial loss to Brian Kemp, broken down in the map below.

2018 Georgia PVI by County -- Gubernatorial Election

Abrams came close to defeating Kemp in the 2018 gubernatorial election by making even more gains in the Atlanta suburbs -- we see that the ring of counties around Fulton and DeKalb became even bluer, with Gwinnett County a prime example of the state's shift leftwards. However, Abrams underperformed Hillary Clinton's margins in rural areas, and the magnitude of her suburban gain was not enough to overcome the large deficit Democrats began with in the state; thus, she lost the race by a margin of 1%. 

The shifting political environment culminated in the state finally flipping at the presidential level in 2020, with the Democratic margins in the Atlanta area finally overpowering the rural Republican base. An examination of the PVI by county reinforces this notion -- although the core Republican areas stayed largely Republican, Cobb and Gwinnett became significantly bluer, as did Henry, Newton, and Douglas, and the improved margins in these areas went a long way towards Biden's victory.

2020 Georgia Presidential Election PVI by County

However, an examination of the county-level swing shows that even key Republican base areas, such as the north of the state and the Atlanta exurbs like Forsyth, saw a marked shift left. The entire Atlanta metro area shifted left, even in already deep-blue counties like Fulton and DeKalb, and a large reason for this was due to Biden's improved margins with white voters. The magnitude of this swing, when combined with record Democratic turnout, was enough to counter rural turnout of the kind that would normally deliver an overwhelming victory for the Republican party.

2016-2020 Presidential Swing by County

Georgia thus is a crystallization of the realignment that has upended the traditional American political coalitions, with Republicans establishing complete dominance in ancestrally Democratic rural areas and Democrats taking control of the suburbs that long underpinned Republican success in the state. The key for a Democratic victory in Georgia is dominating in the Atlanta metro, while at the same time improving in the majority-Black counties in the southwest. If Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock can achieve this, then the Democrats will net two extra seats in the Senate. 


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