Democrats try to pair rising minority tide with swing white voters

Georgia’s rising minority populations improve Democrats’ chances to break the Republican grip on statewide offices this year, but independent-minded white voters remain the key target for the next 100 days until the November election.

The campaigns of Jason Carter for governor and Michelle Nunn for the Senate aim to push black voters to 30 percent of the electorate, while winning close to 30 percent of white voters — well more than Democrats have managed statewide of late. Republicans are putting more money into organizing while contending that Georgia still is fundamentally a red state.

Last week the general election field was set for a pair of nationally watched races atop Georgia’s ticket. Republican Gov. Nathan Deal faces a spirited challenge from Carter, the grandson of President Jimmy Carter. And Republican businessman David Perdue, the cousin of former Gov. Sonny Perdue, triumphed Tuesday in a runoff to face Nunn, the daughter of former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, for Georgia’s open Senate seat.

Democrats’ attempts to capture swing voters are on display in Nunn’s cautious approach on the new health care law and Carter’s “yes” vote on a contentious gun rights expansion.

At the same time, they are spending big on sophisticated tactics to target and turn out base voters in the hopes of imitating President Barack Obama’s vaunted campaign machine — since Obama never bothered to spend money in Georgia in his re-election bid.

Republicans are not ceding any ground. The Republican National Committee has upgraded its collection of data on voters and plowed money into organizing Georgia. Deal and Perdue are honing their pitches to a swing electorate that is seeing the economy start to sputter back to life and is frustrated with Obama.

The state Republican Party has launched a long-term strategy to swing minority groups as well, but it’s unclear whether it will bear any fruit this year.

“Georgia has shifted,” Republican National Committee spokesman Michael Short said. “It has not shifted in a way that changes the fundamentals of how a Democrat would have to win in Georgia. It may have inched in their way just a little, but it doesn’t change the overall math.”

Democratic operatives concede there’s a narrow, but viable, path to victory.

Tharon Johnson, a Democratic strategist who is helping lead the party’s coordinated strategy, said Democrats’ challenge is to “focus on the issues that generate excitement with the Democratic base while being strong on issues that will help obtain moderate to conservative votes from white women and men.”

A midterm surge?

The first leap for Democrats is to make midterm turnout — which tends to be older and whiter — look more like a presidential year: blacks formed 30 percent of the state’s electorate in 2008 and 2012, compared with 28 percent in 2010 when Deal and U.S. Sen Johnny Isakson romped to victory. The second goal is tougher, as the surge in white support for Republicans has enabled the GOP to establish one-party control.

They look to Georgia’s last competitive Senate race for guidance. In 2008, big turnout from black voters for Obama helped force Republican U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss into a runoff to hold the seat. Democrat Jim Martin won 26 percent of white votes, according to exit polls. A whopping 93 percent of black voters chose Martin.

Chambliss won the lower-turnout runoff by nearly 15 percentage points.

From the 2008 to 2012 election the raw number of white voters actually declined, as blacks and other minorities now make up a larger share of the electorate. But Obama still lost to Republican Mitt Romney by 7.8 percentage points in Georgia, as white voters shifted further to the right.

Republicans have long acknowledged that the changing demographics put their grip on the state’s top offices in jeopardy, and they have sought new ways to reach out to minorities, particularly Hispanics. Many say the demographics are still in their favor, though. As of November, Hispanics made up only 1.7 percent of active voters and Asian-Americans constituted 1.3 percent.

And the Republican campaigns are confident their economy-focused messages can appeal to all stripes.

“We have a real contrast that our campaigns will be able to show — conservative principles at the state level that actually work,” Deal said. “If we had a corollary to that in Washington, we would see a huge difference at the federal level.”

Perdue told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the GOP message — if applied correctly — could entice both minorities and moderates.

“Our role is to talk to them about the potential solutions that the Republican Party has always stood for, and that maybe we haven’t lived up to in the last decade,” Perdue said. “And that’s economic opportunity, fiscal responsibility and limited government. And provide some alternatives, particularly with getting the economy going again.”

The Georgia races are squarely on the national radar. The coordinated statewide Republican campaign, funded in part by the RNC, has eight offices and 15 paid staffers throughout the state. Republicans have already well exceeded their goal by signing up 500 volunteer captains for voting precincts, Short said.

Bridging the gap

Carter and Nunn have embraced different strategies to press their case with voters. Nunn, a nonprofit executive, has pushed middle-of-the-road proposals and has been wary of being tied too closely with the Obama administration. Carter, a state senator, has more openly embraced Obamacare than Nunn.

Carter has said that his campaign hopes to hit 1.3 million votes — roughly 200,000 more than Roy Barnes tallied in his 2010 gubernatorial bid. The bulk of that increase could come from unregistered Democratic voters — a Carter strategist has pegged that number at 600,000 — but independents and disaffected Republicans could help bridge the gap.

“This race is becoming the rare combination of a weak governor who is stuck in the low 40s (in polling) and a Democratic candidate who everyone is excited about,” said veteran Democratic operative John Anzalone, a Carter pollster.

One reason for a reliance on white moderates: Reaching unregistered minority voters isn’t just difficult, it’s also expensive. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed — whose 2009 victory was driven by a strong turnout machine has said the Nunn and Carter campaigns need to spend $3 million to $5 million to target minority voters in Georgia. And even if they are registered, there’s still no guarantee they will vote.

A hurdle to courting black voters could be that both candidates are white and from affluent east Atlanta neighborhoods. That’s a particular challenge for Nunn, whose uneasiness with Obamacare could alienate black voters who view the health care overhaul as supremely important.

Exit polls showed about 23 percent of white voters in Georgia backed Obama in 2008, and analysts believe that number dropped in 2012, but there was no official exit poll for the state. A 10-point swing is not inconceivable, but it will take more than maximizing voter turnout in left-leaning suburbs such as Decatur and liberal enclaves such as Athens.

They’ll need to hold self-described moderates like Sheila Young, 58, of Pierce County. She thinks the perceived failures of the Obama administration will make it difficult for Democrats running for office.

“Because of the Democratic president, I do think it’s going to be tough for those candidates,” Young said. “I’m still leaning toward Michelle Nunn myself.”

Not to say she’ll write an all-blue ticket, Young said.

“Carter, he just doesn’t get my goat.”

Republican voter James Lewallen, a 66-year-old Army veteran from Augusta, said he is concerned about what the state’s changing voter profile means for future elections — if not right away.

“As the demographics are now, it could possibly be a Democratic state in the next few years,” Lewallen said. “It’s alarming to me.”

High-tech targeting

Obama’s campaigns were seen as more technologically advanced than their Republican counterparts, in part by using voter targeting drawn from corporate marketing.

Operatives take voter information candidates now use — including race, voting frequency and partisan affiliation — and tie it to consumer data that companies employ to target their advertisements. Campaigns crunch the data and spit out a score showing how likely you are to vote for their candidate. That helps them decide whether the person needs a door-knock from a volunteer, a web ad or simply to be left alone.

After losing soundly in national elections in 2012, the RNC conducted a deep self-examination and vowed to spend $30 million to $40 million on data and targeting. The GOP is now deploying new mobile apps for door-knockers and voter scores on a scale of 1 to 100 to determine how likely a person was to vote for the Republican candidate.

For Georgia, voter research can be applied to how candidates hone their messages. Resonate, a nonpartisan Washington-area data firm, has been studying Georgia and in an analysis for the AJC found that 23 percent of Georgia voters could be considered “swing” voters willing to cross party lines at least some of the time.

Those voters report that their top issues are job creation, health care policy and government spending. Democratic base voters, meanwhile, show a particular interest in environmental issues, while Republican base voters care much more about foreign policy.

The Nunn campaign believes that she is better positioned than previous Democratic candidates to woo minorities and swing voters because her background in community service translates well to both. Other Democrats want more policy meat behind her message.

U.S. Rep. David Scott, an Atlanta Democrat, said he urged the Nunn team to seize upon Deal’s refusal to expand Medicaid coverage for low-income Georgians under Obamacare. Scott pointed out that Medicaid expansion polls far better than the law itself.

On Wednesday morning, as she kicked off the general election campaign at an Atlanta diner, Nunn was asked about Obamacare and pivoted to what she would like to do to “fix” the law. Among her recommendations: “We need to repeal the cuts that are threatening rural hospitals as the result of our failure to expand Medicaid.”

Staff writer Nicholas Fouriezos contributed to this article.