Diverse female electorate in metro suburbs expected to play big role in 2020

Nina Wilson drops off her absentee ballot while dozens of other voters line up to cast their votes in person on the first day of early voting at the Cobb County Board of Elections & Registration on Monday, May 18, 2020, in Marietta. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Campaigns have long sought the votes of suburban women. Historically, they’ve been mostly white, middle- and upper-class and reliable Republican voters. But as metro Atlanta’s northern suburbs have grown more diverse, the changing face of the suburban female voter has become an indicator of the area’s political shift.

Suburban women in four metro Atlanta counties make up more than 15% of Georgia’s electorate, and political eyes are on them as the 2020 election approaches.

The battle is intensifying in Atlanta’s northern suburbs, where populations have boomed and diversified. The counties’ populations have shifted away from the white, conservative stereotype and now include a vast diversity of race, age and income.

Those new voters have made what were once Republican strongholds up for grabs as seats from county commissions to Congress flip party control and Democrats’ margins grow.

Lucy McBath, a national spokeswoman for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, speaks during a rally at Woodruff Park in Atlanta in April 2017. McBath is now a candidate in the Democratic Party’s 6th Congressional District runoff on July 24. (DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM)

In 2018, U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath became the first Democrat to win the 6th Congressional District, which encompasses parts of eastern Cobb, northern DeKalb and northern Fulton counties. Next door in the 7th District, which covers most of Gwinnett County and the southern tip of Forsyth County, Democratic challenger Carolyn Bourdeaux was less than 500 votes short of unseating incumbent Republican Rep. Rob Woodall.

Also in 2018, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams received a larger proportion of votes in Cobb and Gwinnett than Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton did in 2016. That presidential election was the first time either county went blue in a statewide vote; Fulton and DeKalb were already strongholds for the party.

“The idea that Hillary Clinton could win the north metro counties is a significant shift,” said Andra Gillespie, an Emory University political science professor. “The fact that Stacey Abrams won north metro counties shows it’s not a one time thing.”

Woodstock-U.S. Senator Kelly Loeffler speaks to supporters at a campaign event at the Tuscany Italian restaurant in Woodstock on Wednesday, July 8, 2020. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Democrats’ gains have not gone unnoticed by their opponents; the appointment of U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler is clearly a bid to attract the same women voters, Gillespie said. The Buckhead businesswoman, chosen to fill the Senate seat vacated by retiring Sen. Johnny Isakson in 2019, has been campaigning on a pro-business, law-and-order message in her effort to win her first elected term.

“(Gov.) Brian Kemp signaled their importance when he selected Kelly Loeffler to replace Johnny Isakson in an effort to bring suburban women back to the Republican fold,” Gillespie said.

While speculation about Georgia becoming a swing state has loomed for years, 2018′s elections combined with recent polling data make it seem closer to reality than ever. Races like the 7th Congressional District went from an easy double-digit Republican win to a slim incumbent victory, with weeks of recounts and litigation following Election Day.

For decades, the Peach State was considered deep red; now, it’s rated “lean Republican” for the presidential race — indicating Republican candidate Trump has a slight advantage, but it’s no sure thing — and “toss up” for both U.S. Senate seats by the Cook Political Report, an independent election analysis site.

Women voters are of particular interest because they tend to turn out at higher numbers than men; they have nationally since 1980. In Cobb, Gwinnett, DeKalb and Fulton counties, excluding the city of Atlanta, the proportion of female voters is higher than the male voting population by between 2.78 and 4.15 percentage points. Women’s slight lead in voter registration is a common trend across Georgia and the U.S.

White suburban women in particular are regularly labeled “swing voters” who cast their ballot based on issues they care about in their daily lives rather than showing strict party loyalty. But one thing’s for sure: there’s no single face you can put on a suburban woman voter in metro Atlanta.

“There are all different kinds of suburban women, and the thought that suburban women are a monolith is a pathway to disaster,” said Bianca Keaton, chair of the Gwinnett County Democratic party.

Bianca Keaton is the first female chair of the Gwinnett County Democratic Party.

Credit: Courtesy of Bianca Keaton

Credit: Courtesy of Bianca Keaton

In Gwinnett and DeKalb, a majority of registered female voters are not white; in Fulton, excluding Atlanta, nonwhite female voters represent the plurality, 47%, with 12% of unknown race, according to state voter registration data. Cobb’s female electorate is majority white by a margin of nearly 14 percentage points.

Black women make up the largest proportion of the nonwhite female vote in all four counties, with Black women being the majority of female voters in DeKalb. Fulton’s electorate, excluding Atlanta voters, is 37.5% Black women; it’s 28.3% in Gwinnett and 28% in Cobb.

Yolanda Norman of DeKalb County uses te new voting machines at Voter Registration and Elections Office in Atlanta on Monday, March 2, 2020. Miguel Martinez for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Asian and Latina or Hispanic voters make up smaller proportions of those areas’ female electorates. Gwinnett has the highest proportions, with 9% of its voters identifying as Hispanic or Latina women and 8.6% identifying as Asian women. Asian women make up 3.2% of Cobb’s electorate, and Hispanic or Latina women make up 5.5%. The numbers for Asian women in DeKalb and Fulton, excluding Atlanta, are 3% and 4.3%, while those for Hispanic or Latina women are 2.6% and 3.1% for the same geographical areas.

Black women tend to be strong supporters of the Democratic party at the polls. Nationwide, 94% of registered black women voters cast a ballot for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, according to the National Exit Poll, which is contracted by major media organizations including NPR and NBC. Party support and racial and ethnic identity are less strongly tied in other groups; 66% of Hispanic and Latino voters cast a ballot for Clinton in 2016 and 65% of Asian-American voters did.

“There isn’t a lot I would agree with Newt Gingrich about, but he actually put out a pamphlet in 2016 trying to tell the Republicans how to win the election, and there was a passage that said ‘Demography is not destiny,’” Keaton said, referencing the conservative former 6th District congressman. “There’s a widely held assumption that black and brown voters will always support Democrats, which is not necessarily true. There aren’t a whole lot of Black Republicans, but there’s a significant amount there. In Asian and Latinx communities, there are populations that tend to vote Republican because of social issues, cultural norms or religion.”

That makes outreach to different communities ever more important for Republicans in the northern suburbs. Rose Wing, a longtime member of the Cobb GOP and a current candidate for the Georgia House, sees the value in trying to connect with neighbors from different backgrounds. Her own district, the Marietta-based 37th, flipped from Republican to Democrat in 2018 by a margin of 1 percentage point.

“As the growth of the county takes place and you see more diversity, I reached out and engaged to keep our community inclusive,” Wing said, noting she recently participated in a march in Marietta advocating for racial justice. “You have to be aware of each other’s needs, and you cannot do that without being involved in the community.”

AJC data specialist Jennifer Peebles contributed to this story

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