Stacey Abrams took an unorthodox approach in her bid for Georgia governor by embracing her party’s progressives to become the top Democratic vote-getter in state history. Republican Brian Kemp adopted a less heralded, mirror image strategy that focused almost exclusively on his party’s most conservative voters.
In a state long controlled by the GOP, his was the gamble that paid off. But the razor-thin margin of the victory also surfaced looming problems for Georgia’s Republican Party.
An analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution of newly released voter data showed the electorate was more diverse than just two years ago, underscoring Abrams’ attempts to rally more left-leaning minorities in her bid to be the nation’s first black female governor.
But Georgia voters also grew slightly grayer, too, a sign of both the aging electorate and Kemp's efforts to mobilize older conservative voters who form the backbone of the Georgia GOP.
The data highlight a potential dilemma for Republicans who tried to squeeze every vote possible out of sparsely populated rural parts of Georgia even if it cost them support in faster growing suburban areas.
It also reinforces the shorter-term success of the philosophy that guided both campaigns: In the era of Donald Trump, the conventional approach of moving toward the center of the electorate is no longer reliable. And that's because there are fewer persuadable voters at a time of peak political polarization.
To Abrams, her near-miss came despite what she described as an unlevel playing field orchestrated by Kemp, who remained as the state's top elections official even as he ran for governor. Her complaints of voter suppression are detailed in a far-reaching, 66-page lawsuit that her new advocacy group filed days after she ended her bid for governor.
White voters still dominate the state’s elections, but their voting strength continues to diminish. In 2010, two-thirds of people who cast ballots were white. That number dropped to 64 percent in 2014, then to 61 percent in 2016. In November, it slipped to a low of 59 percent of the electorate.
Democrats pushed black voting strength to roughly 29 percent of the electorate, slightly higher than the 2016 margin and roughly the same level attained in 2014. That doesn’t include about 10 percent of other non-white voters — the turnout from Latino and Asian voters tripled over four years — or the pool of roughly 1 percent of voters who declined to be identified by race.
Abrams’ goal of mobilizing Georgians who don’t usually vote had mixed results. About 7 percent of voters registered to cast ballots for the first time this year, compared to about 12 percent in the higher-turnout presidential year.
But there were nearly 540,000 people who voted in Georgia this year who didn't cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election, and almost 40 percent of those voters were black, according to an analysis by TargetSmart, a Democratic data tracking firm.
And younger people – traditionally harder to get to the polls – again proved difficult to mobilize. About one-fifth of the electorate was under 34, a slightly lower proportion than in 2016. And more than half of voters were older than 52, an uptick of five percentage points from two years earlier.
Still, the number of younger voters shot up compared to the last midterm. The TargetSmart analysis showed Georgians under 30 made up 8 percent of the 2014 electorate - and about 13 percent of this year's share.
A rural red wall
For Kemp's advisers, the figures are a validation of their campaign strategy – and a warning of the changing political atmosphere that seems certain to make Georgia a battleground state in 2020.
His campaign decided early it would take a drastically different approach, not just to defeat Abrams, but to overcome Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle in the primary. Cagle, the Republican front-runner, was considered a lock for the nomination by much of the Capitol crowd.
Kemp took an unabashedly pro-Trump stance from the outset of the race and tacked to Cagle's right, with headline-grabbing campaign promises and controversial TV ads that delighted conservatives but alienated moderates.
His approach helped him earn Trump’s endorsement and coast to a giant runoff victory, but it posed a general election challenge that his advisers wrestled with after he won the nomination: Should Kemp aim for undecided voters, or continue to focus on the conservative issues that worked in the primary?
After months of branding Kemp a pro-Trump firebrand, they couldn't simply put him in a new suit, send him to the suburbs and expect vastly different results. But he needed to do something: Internal polls showed him down close to 30 points among suburban white women.
They decided on a two-pronged approach. Waves of television ads soon hit the airwaves featuring his wife Marty and their three teenaged daughters. So did a trio of commercials — costing roughly $1.5 million – blasting Abrams' opposition to a sex offender crackdown.
Kemp still got clobbered in metro Atlanta's suburbs, but the focused messaging – along with a pitch for more school safety measures and teacher pay hikes — helped narrow his losses. It also let him focus on the trove of conservative voters in rural areas where Trump scored big two years ago.
The most aggressive effort came after Kemp’s nervous advisers saw the earliest results of the all-out Abrams push to blanket potential voters with absentee ballot applications. Worried that Democrats would build an insurmountable lead, they devised a counter-offensive.
Using three separate streams of polling data and public voter records, Kemp’s campaign had already created a profile of virtually every likely Georgia voter, graded with metrics that included which candidate they were most likely to support and their level of enthusiasm for the president.
His campaign pulled out the voters with the highest pro-Trump scores, hired a team of roughly 50 operatives and opened a string of mostly rural offices.
They were assigned a simple mission: Don’t worry about putting out yard signs. Don’t bother with organizing events. Just track these voters relentlessly and contact them personally.
They called it Operation Red Wall.
A law of physics
The Abrams campaign was eager to drive up the tally in urban areas where Democrats had long thrived and suburbs where the party had newfound strength. But she also worked early to visit rural parts of the state, including some areas Democrats had long bypassed.
“We didn’t get blown out of the water in south Georgia. That’s one of the reasons we had such a high water mark in this election,” Abrams said in an interview. “We focused around the state. We didn’t just focus on three or four counties and say that’s the ballgame.”
Her campaign used the same sophisticated metrics that Kemp leveraged to identify and then relentlessly target progressive voters with mailers, digital ads and in-person visits. It also invested early in an expensive grassroots effort to motivate minority voters who tuned out previous midterm elections.
That paid off. Roughly 1.14 million African-American voters cast ballots in the election, and exit polls show the overwhelming majority backed Abrams. In 2014, Michelle Nunn’s U.S. Senate campaign earned a total of 1.16 million votes. That means the number of black voters who went to the polls for Abrams in November was nearly equal to the number of all Democratic votes cast four years earlier.
A string of high-profile figures that included virtually every potential 2020 Democratic presidential contender and a rare visit by Oprah Winfrey helped boost energy in metro Atlanta. But at each turn, Republicans were eager to remind Abrams of one of Newton's laws: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
They responded by bombarding conservatives with mailers tying Abrams to Hillary Clinton or Elizabeth Warren. And they ratcheted up attacks claiming she was a radical extremist bent on turning Georgia into California.
And they turned Abrams' own words against her, from a gaffe about agriculture to a wobbly iPhone video quickly transformed into a TV ad that captured Abrams saying: "If we change Georgia, we change the South."
Georgians wound up with a state even more starkly divided than it was after the polarizing 2016 race for president.
Kemp carried all 128 counties that Trump won two years ago, while Abrams won nearly all the territory that Clinton captured. The lone exceptions were a pair of rural counties – Burke and Washington – that went Democratic by narrow margins in 2016.
But it was the margin of those victories that kept the race so tight, as red counties grew redder and blue ones got bluer.
Consider Banks County, a sparsely populated area where nearly 9 out of every 10 residents voted for Trump. Kemp exceeded Trump's percentage in that county by a percentage point.
He also outdid the president’s margins in dozens of other counties, from Towns to Toombs. The intensity in those areas was off the charts. There were 81 counties where voter turnout increased by at least 20 percent compared with the 2014 midterm. Kemp carried 71 of them.
But Abrams was able to keep pace, thanks to a surge of support in densely-populated metro Atlanta that helped offset lower turnout in other urban areas.
The band of inner suburbs that jump-started the Republican renaissance in Georgia continued their shift toward Democrats. Abrams notched 54 percent in Cobb County and nearly 57 percent in Gwinnett and Henry. And in DeKalb, she surpassed 83 percent.
Those gains were fueled by two different factors. With Abrams at the top of the ticket, the turnout in the two congressional districts covering much of the northern Arc grew significantly more diverse. In Georgia’s 6th District, where Democrat Lucy McBath upset U.S. Rep. Karen Handel, the proportion of non-white voters grew by nearly 10 percent over four years.
Still, she couldn’t have reached those levels without significantly expanding the Democratic coalition. Her advisers calculated that in Cobb and Gwinnett alone, she won roughly one-third of white voters.
Down the ballot, the gulf between rural Georgia and urban areas grew even wider. Democrats flipped more than a dozen statehouse seats — all in the metro Atlanta suburbs — even as the party lost a trio of rural districts and failed to oust other vulnerable incumbents outside Atlanta.
Exit polls reinforced that contrast. Republicans wound up carrying rural and small-town white voters by more than 80 percent, according to a VoteCast analysis. That helped Kemp build a nearly 3-1 advantage among all whites even as he got trounced among minority voters.
And to Kemp, that polarization was expected. In an interview in his transition office shortly after the election, he professed a sense of calm about the razor-tight outcome.
“Nothing that happened to us surprised me at all. I knew it would be a tough race in the primary. Going through that tough primary prepared me for the general election,” he said.
“I knew it would be tough. The Democrats were energized around the country, but I’ll say this — we got our folks energized, too.”