What Republicans Can Learn from Their Georgia Performance

Elections
Sen. David Perdue gives a thumbs up as he arrives at a campaign event in Savannah, Ga., December 4, 2020. (Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters)

A look under the hood at the back-to-back Georgia elections, including Perdue’s vote advantage over Trump.

Georgia’s slip to the Democrats in both the presidential and Senate races for the first time in a generation was a whole-state effort.

The fact that Donald Trump lost the state and both David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler lost their races is not just about what voters in Atlanta or its inner suburbs did. The results followed patterns, and by stepping back to take in the rest of the state, we can get a fuller grasp of how Republicans fell short in November and again in January.

One key data point that could easily be overlooked: In November, the now-defeated Perdue received more votes than Trump, with Perdue winning 2,462,617 votes to Trump’s 2,461,837. At first glance, that seems like an insignificant difference. In fact, there are lessons for Republicans in both Perdue’s strong (if not strong enough) showing in November and his ultimate defeat this month.

A careful study of the November results reveals that the precincts and counties responsible for his edge over Trump’s performance were not distributed randomly. For the most part, the results followed two basic patterns. First, affluent, well-educated white voters preferred Perdue to Trump in November almost everywhere they could be found. This shows up most strongly in Atlanta but can be seen elsewhere. The second is that rural and small-town black voters often preferred Perdue to Trump. Both trends carried over into January. White-collar Republicans returned to the fold, and Perdue outperformed the more pro-Trump Loeffler among African Americans. The runoff races were lost, though, because the electorate was not quite the same.

That will be explained later, but first it is important to look at the November results. To keep it simple, I’ve focused on these seven counties:

To help make sense of the results, I used data from the Census Bureau on median household income and college degrees. These figures mostly use the 2018 and 2019 American Community Survey accessed through this portal. The ACS does not provide data for every block group, and as a result some are left blank.

Starting in North Georgia, we find the following counties:

The Chattanooga, Tenn., suburbs extend into the northwest Georgia counties of Walker and Dade, but both are still very rural and blue-collar otherwise. Except for two precincts, they gave Trump far more votes than they gave Perdue. Both of these, Fairyland and West Brow, cover the wealthy hamlets atop Lookout Mountain, and they also saw more voters participate in the Senate race.

Blue-collar precincts of any kind are not known for high turnout. The state as a whole managed about 67 percent turnout, but Dade’s Trenton precinct could manage only 54.16 percent. The La Fayette precinct did better but still lagged the state total. La Fayette is also notable for giving Perdue 125 fewer votes than Trump, the largest drop by far of any precinct I studied. For all the talk of Trump maxing out his support in rural areas, though, he didn’t max it out enough in terms of turnout.

The eastern side of the state shows a different story. Oconee and Greene Counties had no problem getting voters to the polls. Oconee managed an incredible turnout of 84.46 percent, and Greene did nearly as well. Both counties are affluent and well-educated, which usually means higher voter turnout. Oconee County is home to exurban Atlantans and wealthy residents of the Athens area. Being situated just south of the University of Georgia, it is also home to a high percentage of college graduates. Greene County, meanwhile, contains the wealthy haven around Lake Oconee.

Old Salem is at the heart of that area. It gave Perdue the highest number of votes over Trump of any precinct outside of the core Atlanta counties. It did this by managing an outstanding 89.1 percent turnout of its nearly 7,000 voters. Marswood Hall over in Oconee County gave Perdue the largest vote advantage over Trump of any precinct in the county. Nearby, East Oconee and Civic Center gave more votes to Perdue and saw more voters cast ballots in his race than Trump’s. Oconee County’s 513 extra votes for Perdue amounted to one of the largest margins in the state.

Fascinatingly, in Southwest Georgia there were places that outdid even those swings. Many African Americans live here. It is mostly rural outside of Albany, and low-income. All the precincts that gave more votes to Trump than Perdue in these three counties — Early, Terrell, Crisp — were majority-white. Jon Ossoff’s loss of support from Joe Biden’s numbers here can largely be explained by South Georgians’ distaste for white liberals from Atlanta telling them what to do.

But overall, the 48 percent African-American Early County saw a 2.29 percent swing from Trump to Perdue, the highest in the state. The precinct of Blakely accounted for most of this, with that 64-vote advantage for Perdue. Nearby Terrell County is 61.2 percent African American. Dawson, the county seat, gave Perdue roughly half as many extra votes, but the swing to him was nearly as much.

Crisp County is more similar to much of Southeast Georgia. The former is about 54 percent white, the latter around 57 percent. However, Crisp’s county seat of Cordele, with 10,571 people, is over 65 percent African American. The boost in votes Perdue received here, paired with the drop-off in support from Biden to Ossoff, netted Perdue a win in a precinct Trump lost.

If the above conditions had broadly held from November to January, Perdue and perhaps Loeffler might still be senators. They did not. Minority turnout remained unusually high. Affluent whites did even better, but blue-collar whites trailed off significantly. Perdue generally did better than Loeffler with minority voters, but his percentages and outright numbers still dropped. This was a decisive factor in the Democrats’ victories.

The numbers have only just been certified, but here is a sampling of them:

Minority turnout remained high because Democrats kept their voters motivated, and the thought of electing Raphael Warnock to represent this state certainly on its own provided African Americans with enough impetus to show up. Suburban Republicans made the effort to show up at the polls, but the failure of blue-collar whites to show up more than nullified that. Drop-offs of double digits were common among heavily white, blue-collar counties and precincts. It is not difficult to see why: Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud convinced some of his supporters to stay home. Simply put, the Democrats did a better job of getting their voters to the polls than did Republicans.

With sizeable GOP counties such as Walker seeing turnout dip by far more than in Democratic strongholds, Perdue’s loss can be understood. Meanwhile, large Democratic counties like DeKalb and Fulton saw declines similar to Terrell’s. Notably, affluent GOP strongholds Oconee and Greene saw much smaller drop-offs, and Old Salem still saw the highest turnout of any precinct here.

So what’s the takeaway? Trump lost Georgia in November because wealthy, educated Atlanta suburbanites did not show up for him. But we know they are there. Many still showed up for Perdue, but they are disillusioned. People studying the effect of Trump on the GOP and Georgia should still make an effort to examine how he changed the areas outside large cities such as Atlanta. The vote totals received by Perdue in November offer one particularly useful barometer for this. He kept a number of suburbanites in the fold, but the hardcore Trump voters did not stick around down-ballot for Perdue.

The Georgia map provides several hints as to what Republicans must do going forward: It has to keep affluent, conservative suburbanites in the fold. They must also find a way to keep the Trump base — blue-collar whites — engaged with the party in the post-Trump era. The GOP has a great opportunity to pick up support among rural black voters. In Georgia, prioritizing development of the Coastal South can help. It can all be done, but it will take hard work and honesty.

Jake Walker is a history Ph.D. student at the University of North Dakota. He is also a former writer for RedState and resident of Georgia for 26 years.

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