New Republican Gov. Brian Kemp begins his term with an approval rating of 37.2 percent, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll of registered voters. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

AJC poll shows a deeply divided Georgia and tough numbers for Kemp

After an intensely partisan race for Georgia governor, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll released Friday shows Republican Brian Kemp may have a difficult task ahead in healing the state’s deep political divides.

The newly minted governor’s approval rating sits at just 37.2 percent of registered Georgia voters, with nearly half of respondents giving him negative reviews.

Only about one-third of women approve of Kemp, along with just 10 percent of black voters. That’s offset partly by his popularity among his party’s base. About three-quarters of Republicans have a positive view of him, along with 80 percent of conservatives.

PDF: View the complete poll crosstabs for politician favorability

AJC poll archive

That contrasts with Stacey Abrams, the Democrat Kemp narrowly defeated in November. A slim majority of Georgians — 51.9 percent — have positive views of her. That includes about 60 percent of women, two-thirds of moderates and 90 percent of black voters.

The poll, conducted Jan. 7 through Thursday by the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs, offers a snapshot of Georgia’s political dynamic at the start of Kemp’s term as governor — and as the 2020 race for president and one of Georgia’s two U.S. Senate seats begins to form. It involved 702 registered voters and has a margin of error of 3.7 percentage points.

Kemp won the governor’s race with 50.2 percent of the vote. In the AJC’s October poll of likely voters, 43 percent viewed him favorably, but 48 percent said they would vote for him.

Only about half of registered voters typically vote in midterm elections, so the new poll’s findings are from a group that is probably broader and more diverse than pre-election polls and the actual election. The registered voter population better reflects the overall populace of the state Kemp is now governing.

Kemp’s numbers largely mirror those of President Donald Trump, who was the model for his campaign for governor. Slight less than 38 percent of Georgia voters approve of the president, who won the state by 5 points in 2016, and just 1 in 5 independents back him. Among Republicans, though, he has an 86 percent approval rating.

Trump’s ratings come at a time when he faces an investigation into his ties to Russia and the fallout of a partial shutdown of the federal government over his demands for a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico. In the AJC’s October poll, 46 percent of likely voters approved of the way he was handling his job.

The numbers are better for U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who is seeking a second term in 2020. His favorability rating sits at 45.4 percent, with about one-third of voters giving him unfavorable reviews. Conservatives overwhelmingly support Perdue, but only about 40 percent of independents favor him.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is almost as polarizing in Georgia as Trump. Just under 39 percent of Georgians approve of Pelosi, who regained the speaker’s gavel after Democrats retook control of the chamber in November. Just 4 percent of Republicans view her positively, compared with 70 percent of Democrats.

Former Gov. Nathan Deal remains the most popular politician in the state, with 56.9 percent of registered voters having a positive view of him. That includes one-third of Democrats and most independents and Republicans.

Deal appears to be the beneficiary of the positive outlook most Georgia voters have for the state. More than 60 percent of the poll’s respondents said they were very satisfied or somewhat satisfied with the way things are going for the state.

In contrast, 66 percent of respondents said they were somewhat dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the direction of the country.

A deep divide

The AJC poll underscores Kemp’s struggles since his narrow victory over Abrams, a win clouded by her claims that he used his office as secretary of state to help engineer his victory. She refused to formally concede the race, and the state Democratic Party has dubbed him the “asterisk governor.”

That sentiment appears among some rank-and-file Democrats, some of whom view his victory as illegitimate.

“I don’t think he should have won the election. Stacey Abrams should be the governor,” said Jasmine Kelly, an 18-year-old college student from Jonesboro. “Was he the legitimate winner? Heck no. Something wasn’t right with his win. It was very shady. But that’s how the government is to me.”

Kemp’s staunchest supporters, conservatives from rural parts of the state, see him as an unapologetic politician who is victimized by spurned Democrats seeking an excuse for their statewide defeats.

“The voter suppression stuff was a made-up story,” said James McNutt, a retired Marine from Dawsonville. “I’m optimistic about Brian Kemp: He seems to mean it when he says that he’ll do what he promised to do in the campaign.”

Kemp’s favorability numbers have suffered despite his attempt to pivot to more centrist proposals after catering to his party’s base during his bid for governor.

Since taking office Monday, Kemp has largely ditched talk about the more divisive measures he backed during the campaign, such as restricting abortion and promoting new pro-gun laws, in favor of hiking teacher pay and getting new flexibility to use federal Medicaid dollars.

Since the election, Abrams has remained in the spotlight. She’s launched a voting rights group that has challenged the state’s electoral policy in court, conducted a spate of high-profile media appearances and prepared an upcoming “thank-you” tour.

The blitz is fortuitously timed for Abrams. She’s given herself a March deadline to decide whether to challenge Perdue in 2020 — or prepare for a possible rematch against Kemp two years later. A half-dozen other prominent Democrats are waiting on her decision before they decide whether to take on Perdue.

And it comes as Democrats are circling Georgia as a battleground state in 2020. Nearly every prominent potential Democratic candidate for president traveled to Georgia last year to stump with Abrams and other candidates, meet with donors and talk with voters infuriated by Trump.

Among them is Kelly, the college student from Jonesboro. She was a fan of Trump’s during his reality TV days — and now can’t stand the sight of him.

“The wall, the shutdown, all the people who aren’t getting paid — it’s all because of him,” she said. “He doesn’t get how this affects so many Americans. He just doesn’t get it.”

That’s a sharp contrast from his image in South Georgia, where Ginger Burch said she hardly knows anyone who will vote against Trump in two years.

“I’m very disappointed in the disrespect that the president is being shown, just because the Democrats don’t like him,” said Burch, a 69-year-old retiree from Waycross. “If they try to impeach him, there’s gonna be an uproar in southeast Georgia.”

How the poll was conducted

The poll was conducted Jan. 7-17, 2019, and included a total of 702 registered voters in Georgia. The survey was administered by the School of Public and International Affairs Survey Research Center at the University of Georgia. Interviews were conducted in English. The sample included 65 percent cellphone numbers and 35 percent landline numbers and was obtained through Self Made Insights Co. (SMI is a sampling vendor that maintains a database constructed from state voter registration lists. Through commercial sources, phone numbers have been added to the individual records (registrants) that make up these lists). The survey results were weighted to ensure the sample was representative of the registrant population in terms of race, sex and age. The margin of error for the total sample is 3.7 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level. This would mean that if 50 percent of respondents indicate a topline view on an issue, we can be 95 percent confident that the population’s view on that issue is somewhere between 53.7 percent and 46.3 percent.

Note:

This survey queried registered voters in Georgia and was weighted to be representative of that population in terms of race, age and sex. The registrant population is not the same as the electorate that voted in the general election in 2018. The AJC election polls conducted in the fall of 2018 surveyed likely general election voters and were weighted to reflect predicted turnout for the general election that year. Polling registered voters is standard practice in non-election years.

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