Is this the year the New South turns blue?
The Republican fortress is cracking
For more than a decade, Democrats have eagerly anticipated the transformation of the once solidly-Republican South into a series of electoral battlegrounds. Ever since Barack Obama's 2008 win in North Carolina, the party has been hoping for favorable demographic trends, including an influx of highly educated transplants from cold weather states and the growth of Latinos and younger-than-average populations overall, to make Georgia and Texas into perennial battlegrounds, and perhaps even to transform Florida into a reliably blue state.
Yet so far none of it has come to pass. Throughout the decade, North Carolina remained a stubbornly Republican-leaning battleground state, while Georgia and Texas have stayed reliably red. Democrats have not won a statewide race in Georgia since 2000 or in Texas since the early 1990s. Both of North Carolina's Senate seats are in Republican hands, and the Florida GOP, powered by the never-ending in-migration of white retirees, has triumphed in every statewide race since 2014. Looking at the region objectively, it has mostly been a huge disappointment for Democrats looking to open up alternate pathways to 270 Electoral Votes and 50 seats in the Senate.
But it could all finally be coming together for Democratic nominee Joe Biden and Democrats across the board, nowhere more clearly than in Georgia. Republicans have had a vise grip on the state since the early 2000s, when it completed its post-realignment movement toward the Republicans in what political scientists Angie Maxwell and Todd Shields call the GOP's "Long Southern Strategy." The only Democratic presidential candidate to carry the state since native son Jimmy Carter was Bill Clinton in 1992. Republicans have won every Senate race there since 2002, when incumbent Democrat Max Cleland was defeated by Republican Saxby Chambliss.
As in North Carolina, there were glimmers in the Obama years that the state was trending rapidly blue. He lost there by only 5 points in 2008. But Democrats could not get any closer than that in 2012 or 2016, and the 2014 races for governor and Senate were massive Republican blowouts.
But the broad unpopularity of President Trump may have changed all that, with negative partisanship boosting Democratic turnout and the GOP's decade-long ugly turn to racism and nativism rapidly transforming the suburbs. Just two years ago, Republican Brian Kemp eked out a narrow, 1.4-point victory over rising Democratic star Stacey Abrams in the gubernatorial race. Despite hopes that massive turnout from Black Americans could put her over the top, it was the closest any Democrat had gotten in the state since 2000. And while there may have been temptation to ignore Georgia when Trump was riding high (by his misbegotten standards, at least) in the post-impeachment, pre-COVID polling at the beginning of this year, the shift against Republicans since the White House's mishandling of the pandemic put the Peach State back on the pickup list.
What's going on under the hood here? The story is quite similar across the region. The big movement has been in the suburbs, where the president's unique ability to repulse women led to a surprise Georgia pickup in the House for Democrat Lucy McBath in the sixth district in 2018 and an achingly close loss for Carolyn Bordeaux to incumbent Republican Rob Woodall in the 7th. In suburban Cobb County, where Newt Gingrich launched his career, GOP Governor Nathan Deal won by 14 points in 2010. In 2018, Abrams got 54 percent of the vote there. It's nothing short of a sea change. So why are Democrats still falling short?
Republicans are staying afloat across the South with continued strength among white voters. Unlike their Northern and Western counterparts, even college-educated whites across this region still vote decisively for Republicans. For example, Kemp won whites with a college degree by 19 points, while Democrat Gretchen Whitmer won them by 6 in Michigan. Democrats' pitiful performance with non-college educated whites across the region (Kemp won this group 82-17) has so far been enough to offset other demographic trends, particularly as President Trump has brought these voters out in larger numbers. But if this week's Monmouth poll is to be believed, Biden has narrowed the gap with both sets of voters in Georgia, losing college-educated whites by only 7.
That's one of the key reasons that Joe Biden has clawed his way to a small polling lead in Georgia. He overtook Trump in the Five Thirty Eight average two days after the first debate on Sept. 29and has not relinquished it. His 1.7 point lead as of today is his highest since the party conventions, and near the Democrat's mid-summer high, when the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, which was particularly bad in Kemp's Georgia, sent Trump's numbers cratering.
To make matters worse for the GOP, they are defending two Senate seats at once in what looks to be the worst environment for state Republicans in a generation. Incumbent Sen. David Perdue is deadlocked in polls with Democrat Jon Ossoff, who has led 5 of 7 public polls released this week. Fresh off dismantling Perdue in a viral exchange so lopsided that the incumbent pulled out of the last debate to hide behind Trump at a rally, Ossoff could even win outright under Georgia's antiquated election rules, which require candidates to get over 50 percent to avoid a January runoff. The momentum certainly feels like it is with him.
The story is even grimmer in Georgia's special election. Incumbent Sen. Johnny Isakson, re-elected in 2016, retired at the end of 2019 for health reasons. Kemp appointed Kelly Loeffler to the seat, but Georgia law required a special election this year to finish out Isakson's six-year term. Loeffler has turned out to be a nightmare. The wealthy businesswoman was one of several Senate Republicans caught up in insider trading accusations when she offloaded stocks after receiving a private briefing on Jan. 24 about the coronavirus. While both the Senate Ethics Committee and the DOJ dropped investigations into her, one can be forgiven for not trusting these Republicans to follow the evidence where it leads.
It is also a well-known and longstanding finding in political science that appointed senators fare worse in their re-election bids than those elected initially by voters, and Loeffler does not seem immune to the trend. Tuesday's election is technically the 'primary' for this seat, with a scrum of candidates running, including her chief party rival Doug Collins and several Democrats, the most prominent of which is charismatic Black pastor Ralph Warnock. This is a race almost guaranteed to head to a January runoff, with Loeffler the slight favorite over Collins to face Warnock. While there isn't a ton of data testing the various head-to-head matchups, what we do have is positively apocalyptic for the GOP, with multiple surveys showing Warnock blowing both Loeffler and Collins out.
Here's something that really ought to scare Republicans about Georgia: The polling there has been pretty good this decade. While pollsters got a number of Midwest battleground states wrong in 2016 and missed wide of the mark in a handful of red state senate races in 2018, polling averages have been quite accurate in Georgia. While Democrats remember the Kemp-Abrams race as a heartbreaker, Kemp was favored to win, and led by 3 points in the Real Clear Politics average and 2.2 in the Five Thirty Eight forecast. The final Trump-Clinton polls at RCP were within half a point of the results. The Five Thirty Eight forecast was also close to the mark. In 2012, polls actually overestimated Republican Mitt Romney's lead over Obama. You have to go back to 2014 to see Republicans overperforming their polls here, and that was a wave election for the GOP.
In Georgia, you'd much rather be Biden than Trump. The former vice president also holds small leads in North Carolina (2.3 points at Five Thirty Eight, 1.2 at RCP, and 2 at The Economist) and Florida. And in perhaps the most shocking development of the cycle, Biden is nipping at Trump's heels in Texas, the most important and longstanding Republican stronghold in the country. Each of these states is unique, but the same trends are powering Democrats everywhere: staggering margins with the youngest voters, a modest recovery from 2016 lows among whites, and the ongoing growth in Latino populations, most of which lean modestly to heavily Democratic. These trends are even narrowing the gap in South Carolina, which Trump should carry easily but with margins in the single digits rather than the landslides Republicans have become accustomed to for a long generation.
Before Democrats break out the champagne, some caveats are in order. First of all, Biden is not guaranteed to win any of these states, which are likely to be very close. A correlated polling error of the magnitude that we saw in the Upper Midwest in 2016 would deliver each of these contests to Trump and perhaps even keep the Senate in GOP hands. And even if Biden wins Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina by low single digits, that would still likely put them significantly to the right of the electorate as a whole, possibly even more so than in 2016 if Biden's national margin approaches double digits.
To turn these states into true toss-ups in a neutral political environment, Democrats will need to continue making significant inroads with white voters, and to use their power in Congress (should they win) to eliminate the many voter suppression strategies that Republicans have employed across the region to drive down turnout. But 2020 is providing ample proof that Democrats were right not to give up on the South, as some writers argued at various points this century when the hill simply looked too steep.
If things break right on Tuesday, we may wake up Wednesday to a transformed political landscape from Austin to Atlanta.