Georgia’s Voting Wars

The candidates matter, but each side’s fight to get its voters to the ballot box matters more. 

A young woman stands next to a Michelle Nunn sign during a rally in Macon, Georgia.

Photo by Jamelle Bouie 

Standing in front of a huge David Perdue bus in a hangar at DeKalb Peachtree Airport, Sen. Johnny Isakson begged the crowd to go to the polls. “Tomorrow isn’t just about going to the polls for yourself, it’s about bringing our neighbors and friends,” he said, “Whatever you do from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., you want to get everyone to go out and vote.”

This is the typical plea of a campaign in its final stretch. But it also reflects the fundamental and driving dynamics of the Georgia’s election contests. Rapid demographic change has pushed this Southern state from a deep red—which gave 57.9 percent of its votes to George W. Bush—to a reddish purple, where the Democratic Senate candidate—Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn—is neck-and-neck with Republican David Perdue, and the Democratic candidate for governor—Jimmy Carter’s grandson Jason Carter—is close to a win over Nathan Deal, the Republican governor. Compared to 2010, the black share of the electorate is larger (28.8 percent versus 28.2 percent) and the white share smaller (64.2 percent versus 66.3 percent).

These look like small shifts, but in a close election, they’re substantial. In an electorate with more black voters, Democrats need significantly fewer white voters to maintain a lead and get to 50 percent. What’s more, these trends are ongoing—the Georgia electorate of 2016 and 2018 will each be less white than the one that preceded it. Tuesday’s races—and the strategies pursued by both campaigns—will set the stage for the next decade of partisan fights in the state.

Which is why voter mobilization has had been a huge part of the Georgia campaigns in a way that hasn’t been true in more than a decade. Indeed, if there’s an underlying story to the Georgia statewide races, it’s that the parties are fighting a fierce war to get their supporters to the polls, with Democrats registering new voters by the tens of thousands, and Republicans pinpointing their voters with new tools and techniques. “This is the largest operation as far as people and technology we’ve ever had,” said Ryan Mahoney, a strategist with the Georgia Republican Party.

Supporters on both sides understand as much. Among Michelle Nunn’s final events in the Georgia Senate race was a service project. More than 100 volunteers gathered at a park near an Atlanta high school—one, not-incidentally, where her mother used to teach—to spruce up the field and prepare the community garden for another season of growth. One of the volunteers was Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell, who was there with Nunn on St. Patrick’s Day 2013 when she made the decision to run. “People understand that [this campaign] is an investment,” he said, “It’s important to breathe life into Georgia Democrats before 2016 or 2018, and make sure those progressive values are there.”

Indeed, the Nunn event wasn’t just a service project—it was a chance for volunteers to canvass the surrounding, mostly black neighborhoods. At a certain point, before Nunn arrived, one older volunteer complained that she would rather canvass the area—for her, talking to voters was more important than pulling weeds.

Likewise, at the Republican event with Sen. Isakson and the full slate of GOP candidates—including Gov. Deal and David Perdue—attendees understood that victory was fully a function of who could shape the electorate to their advantage, and that if Democrats win, it’ll be because they outplayed Republicans. “If that happens,” said Rusty Jones, a retiree and enthusiastic GOP supporter, “it will be because the negative ads worked.”

Those ads are ubiquitous. And they’re not just the ones you see on television, where candidates—and groups on behalf of candidates—blast the other side for a variety of real (and sometimes imagined) sins. Turn on a gospel or R&B radio station in Atlanta and you’ll hear Rep. John Lewis—a civil rights icon—urge people to vote to “protect their sacred right,” telling them they’ve “come too far” to lose it to Republicans.

There’s a reason Lewis is using this message, which to Republican ears is inflammatory. After earlier fights over voter registration—where Democrats alleged voter suppression and Republicans accused groups like the New Georgia Project of voter fraud—Democratic voters are highly attuned to the disputes over ballot access. “Here in Macon, we wanted Sunday voting, but they voted it down,” explained Jeannette McElhaney, a Nunn supporter, at a final rally for the Democratic candidate near Mercer University, “They justified it by saying Sunday was the Sabbath. We understand that, but you can buy alcohol on Sunday. And if you can buy alcohol, you can vote.”

Republicans, it should be said, think these accusations of suppression are ridiculous. “I think it is without basis,” says Neal Purcell, who serves as financial chair for the Perdue campaign, “No one is going to take anyone’s vote away. This is political rhetoric of the worst kind.”

There’s no doubt that it’s political rhetoric. But it’s also true that Georgia’s secretary of state, a Republican, has discarded 40,000 voter registrations, a move upheld by a state judge. Likewise, state officials have tried to clean voter rolls with a program that effectively targets minority voters, including blacks.

A huge number of Georgians have already voted in the midterms, and from what we know, Democrats have reason to think they might prevail; black voters are providing a larger share of early ballots this year than they did in 2010. “At 33.1 percent of early votes cast,” notes Jim Galloway for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, “black balloters nearly match their turnout of 2012, when President Barack Obama was up for re-election.”

This fact is a testament to the tremendous effort of Georgia Democrats in their quest to shift the electorate and build a fighting chance for their candidates. Still, the final polls from Georgia show Perdue with small leads over Nunn—ranging from 1 to 4 points—and Deal with somewhat larger leads over Carter, ranging from 3 to 5 points. Which is to say, for all of their work—and all of their success on the ground—Democrats may, and probably will, lose these elections.

But it won’t be a complete loss. Nathan Deal might go back to the governor’s mansion and David Perdue may get a six-year assignment in Washington, but Democratic work in this election means that—in two years—there’s a decent chance Georgia is a genuine swing state. Put another way, Georgia might not save the Democrats’ Senate majority, but come 2016, it might give them a third term in the White House.

As far as consolation prizes go, that one isn’t too bad.