Presidential Battlegrounds: Georgia

by Ryan Matsumoto September 4, 2020 · 2:27 PM EDT

The biggest political realignment in the 2016 presidential election was a shift based on education. President Donald Trump made major gains for a Republican among non-college educated voters, while Hillary Clinton made major gains for a Democrat among college-educated voters.

This trend manifested in traditionally Republican Georgia, where Clinton made major gains with college-educated voters in the Atlanta metropolitan area. In 2020, Georgia is a key state to watch with two competitive Senate races, two competitive House races, and a competitive presidential race.

Georgia in Recent Presidential Elections
Georgia has voted to the right of the nation in recent presidential elections, but has become more competitive. In 2008, John McCain won the state by 5 points while losing nationally by 7 points. In 2012, Mitt Romney won Georgia by 8 points while losing nationally by 4 points. In 2016, Georgia voted for Trump by 5 points while Clinton won the national popular vote by 2 points.

Put another way, Georgia was 12 points more Republican than the nation in 2008, 12 points more Republican than the nation in 2012, and 7 points more Republican than the nation in 2016.

Georgia has also leaned Republican in recent downballot elections. The Inside Elections Baseline score, which measures average partisan performance in Georgia over the past four election cycles, is 53.8 percent Republican and 45.2 percent Democratic.

The 2018 Midterm Elections
One of the races that excited Democrats the most in 2018 was the Georgia gubernatorial race. Ultimately, Republican Brian Kemp prevailed over Democrat Stacey Abrams by just 1 point. Republicans also won elections for Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, Attorney General, Commissioner of Agriculture, Commissioner of Insurance, State School Superintendent, and Commissioner of Labor by margins of 3 to 6 points.

Although Democrats failed to win any row offices in Georgia in 2018, they did much better than in the 2014 midterm elections, when they lost the gubernatorial and Senate races by 8 points and the other seven statewide elections by double-digits.
However, Democrats did perform well at the congressional level in 2018. In the 6th District, based in Atlanta’s northern suburbs, Democrat Lucy McBath defeated Republican Rep. Karen Handel by 1 point. In the neighboring 7th District, also based in the Atlanta suburbs, Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux came within two-tenths of one percent of unseating Republican Rep. Rob Woodall.

Georgia is a racially diverse state at 52 percent Non-Hispanic White, 33 percent Black, 10 percent Hispanic or Latino, 4 percent Asian, 1 percent American Indian, and 2 percent two or more races. Like other Southern states, Georgia politics is racially polarized, evidenced by Trump winning white voters 75 percent to 21 percent and Clinton winning Black voters 89 percent to 9 percent, according to exit polls. Trump did exceptionally well with white voters without a college degree, winning them 81 percent to 15 percent.

According to Census estimates, 31 percent of adults in Georgia have a bachelor’s degree or higher, roughly the same as the country as a whole. Median household income in the state is $55,679, lower than the nationwide median of $60,293.

Increasing Democratic Strength with College-Educated Voters
Relative to previous Republican nominees, Trump made big gains with white voters without a college degree, allowing him to crack the “Blue Wall” and win Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. The flipside, however, was that Clinton made gains relative to previous Democratic nominees with white voters with a college degree. However, those gains didn’t translate into flipping any states because they were mostly concentrated in affluent suburbs of major metropolitan areas in safe states. Some of her biggest gains were in California (Orange County), Texas (Dallas/Austin/Houston suburbs), and Massachusetts (Boston suburbs).

However, Georgia is a state that could potentially be put in play because of this education-based realignment. Although Trump still won the state by 5 points, Clinton made major gains with college-educated voters in the Atlanta suburbs. Cobb and Gwinnett, two large suburban counties that voted for Romney in 2012, flipped to Clinton in 2016. Forty-seven percent of adults in Cobb County have a bachelor’s degree or higher, and 36 percent of adults in Gwinnett County have a bachelor’s degree or higher, both higher than statewide. Clinton also made big gains in Fulton County, which includes Atlanta and some of its suburbs. In particular, the northern suburbs of Fulton County (e.g. Sandy Springs, Alpharetta, and Johns Creek) have moved dramatically to the left in the Trump era. While they were ruby-red during the Obama years, they are closer to toss-up nowadays.

Democrats’ increasing strength among college-educated white voters led to the most expensive House election in American history in 2017. Republican Rep. Tom Price resigned from his seat in Georgia’s 6th District to accept a cabinet position, triggering a special election for the remainder of his term. The 6th District encompasses Atlanta’s northern suburbs and includes portions of Cobb, Fulton, and DeKalb counties. Previously a strongly Republican district, it voted for Romney by 23 points in 2012 before voting for Trump by just 1 point in 2016. The major driving factor for the district’s shift to the left was its demographic profile - approximately 64 percent of its adults have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Although Democrat Jon Ossoff lost the special election to Handel by 4 points, McBath ultimately flipped the seat in the 2018 midterm elections.

The upside for Democrats is that there are still a lot of potential gains with college-educated white voters in southern states such as Georgia. According to exit polls, Trump still won white college graduates in Georgia 69 percent to 28 percent. If demographic patterns continue and southern white voters with college degrees start to vote more like Northern white voters with college degrees, that would help Democrats a lot in Georgia.

On the flipside, Republicans don’t have a ton of room to gain with white voters without college degrees. Trump won that group 81 percent to 15 percent in Georgia,  according to exit polls. Republican dominance with this group can also be seen if we look at county-level election results. Of Georgia’s 159 counties, 122 voted for Trump by double-digits,, with 94 of them voting for Trump by more than 30 points. Most of these counties are rural counties with a high percentage of white working class voters. Basically, Republicans are “maxed out” with white voters without a college degree, and probably can’t make further significant gains with them in Georgia.

Population Growth in Metro Atlanta
Another key factor that makes Georgia an attractive pickup opportunity for Democrats is major population growth in metro Atlanta. According to Census estimates, Georgia’s population increased by about 10 percent from 2010 to 2019, ranking in the top 15 nationwide.

Looking at population growth at the county-level, what stands out is metro Atlanta. Fulton County’s population increased by 16 percent, Gwinnett’s population increased by 16 percent, and Cobb’s population increased by 11 percent. Population growth is also happening in some of the more Republican counties in metro Atlanta. Cherokee County’s population increased by 21 percent, while Forsyth County’s population increased by 39 percent.

Politically, strong population growth in metro Atlanta favors Democrats. First, these urban/suburban counties are much more Democratic than the state as a whole. Second, the new people moving to Georgia tend to be younger, more racially diverse, and more highly educated, all three of which are associated with increased probability of voting Democratic.

One example is Forysth, a heavily Republican suburban/exurban county about half an hour northeast of Atlanta that voted for Trump 72 percent to 24 percent. While Democrats are nowhere close to winning the county, they have made major gains the past few cycles. The number of Republican votes has stayed mostly stable: 65,908 for Romney in 2012, 69,851 for Trump in 2016, and 65,845 for Kemp in 2018. Meanwhile, the number of Democratic votes has skyrocketed: 14,571 for Obama in 2012, 23,462 for Clinton in 2016, and 26,092 for Abrams in 2018. As the population continues to grow, Democrats will likely be able to significantly eat into the Republican advantage here.

Potential Blocks to “Blue Georgia”
Potential Democratic gains with college-educated white voters as well as population growth in metro Atlanta are two reasons to be bullish on Blue Georgia in the medium to long term. Another reason to be bullish on Biden’s chances in Georgia is that the polls point to a pretty Democratic-leaning political environment.  As of September 3, Biden led by 7 points in the FiveThirtyEight national polling average and Democrats led by 7 points in the FiveThirtyEight generic ballot polling average.

However, there is some reason to be bearish on Georgia continuing to drift left relative to the nation. Georgia is a very “inelastic” state, with an elasticity score of .84 (fourth-lowest in the nation) according to FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver. Elasticity scores reflect how much a state’s margin would be expected to move for each point the national popular vote moves. With an elasticity score of .84, Georgia’s margin might be expected to get .84 points more Democratic for each point that Biden gains in the national popular vote. The reason for this is that Georgia’s racially polarized voting means there are fewer persuadable voters. While a Biden landslide might flip numerous white moderates in elastic states such as New Hampshire and Rhode Island, his margins might not get padded as much in a state like Georgia.

The Bottom Line
Georgia promises to be an exciting state to watch this November, with important races for president, Senate, and House. Although the state has leaned Republican relative to the nation, it may be very close this year because of the strong national political environment for Democrats as well as long-term demographic trends. 

Current polling confirms that Georgia is a legitimate battleground. According to the RealClearPolitics average through September 3, Trump led Biden by 1 point. And both of the Senate seats, held by Republicans David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler are competitive. 

If Biden ultimately wins Georgia and Ossoff defeats Perdue in the Senate race, there is a very good chance we will see a Democratic trifecta at the federal level next year.