If President-elect Joe Biden’s razor-thin lead in Georgia holds, 2020 will become the first year since 1992 that a Democrat wins the state. Georgia’s re-emergence as a battleground marks a major shift in its political landscape that would have seemed almost inconceivable even four years ago.
Biden leads President Donald Trump by about 10,000 votes out of 5 million cast, and Georgia state officials said Friday that such a narrow margin makes a recount all but certain.
Yet even if a recount does reverse the result, the state has returned to the ranks of the competitive, its leftward shift propelled by a coalition of voters very unlike the one that helped Bill Clinton win the state in 1992.
In 1992, Clinton was a Southern governor who carried a handful of what have now become solidly Republican states. He may have also benefited from billionaire Ross Perot’s third-party candidacy, which garnered 13% of the vote in Georgia that year.
Twenty-eight years later, the polarization in Georgia mirrors that in the rest of the nation. Majority White, rural counties overwhelmingly preferred Trump, while Biden benefited from an enormous margin and historic turnout in Atlanta and the surrounding suburbs, where a substantial share of voters are Black. Nearly 9 in 10 Black voters in Georgia supported Biden over Trump, according to preliminary exit polls.
To be sure, rural voters in the Piedmont region and southern Georgia did not uniformly scorn Biden, nor were Trump supporters scarce around Atlanta. In Fulton County, which contains most of Atlanta and the city’s suburbs to the north and south, Trump tallied about 136,000 votes, building on the 118,000 he won in 2016.
It was not enough. Biden garnered more than 377,000 votes in Fulton County, far more than Hillary Clinton’s 297,000 votes in 2016.
To the east, in DeKalb County, and in a half dozen other suburban counties surrounding Atlanta, it was the same story: Trump built on last election’s vote total but failed to keep pace with Biden’s gains.
This year’s massive vote margins in and around Atlanta reflect a statewide surge in voter registration, spurred in part by a 2016 administrative change that made registering to vote the default option on the state’s driver’s registration form.
“New voters will on balance be lower-income, and they’re probably more likely to identify with the Democratic Party,” Dan Franklin, who was an associate professor of political science at Georgia State University, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last year about the likely political impact of the change.
Many inside and outside the state also credit former Democratic state minority leader and gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, whose voting rights group Fair Fight registered about 800,000 new voters since 2018.
In 2016, 22 percent of Georgia’s eligible voters were not registered. This year, that figure stood at 2 percent. Turnout, meanwhile, jumped to more than 67 percent of eligible voters, breaking the state’s 40-year record of 63 percent, set in 2008.
Demographic changes also help account for the Democratic shift. Over the last eight years, Atlanta and its Democratic-leaning suburbs have grown more populous as the rest of the state’s population has stagnated, according to a Washington Post analysis of census data.
The competitiveness of the presidential race has also played out in the state’s two Senate races, where Republican candidates in both contests were unable to secure enough votes to avoid runoffs. Those elections, to be held Jan. 5, will determine whether Democrats wrest control of the Senate, which would give the party control of both chambers of Congress along with the White House.
Even as Biden’s lead in the broader presidential contest became decisive on Saturday afternoon, Georgia’s outcome remained uncertain. Under Georgia law, a candidate can request a recount if the margin is less than 0.5 percent of votes cast. Biden leads the state by about 0.2 percent.