Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump are locked in a statistical tie in Georgia, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll that laid bare the deep divide over the presidential race.
Trump’s 4-point lead over Clinton — he’s at 45 percent — is within the poll’s margin of error, meaning neither can confidently claim a state that’s voted for the GOP nominee since 1996. Sprinkled throughout are reminders of the challenges both face in capturing Georgia: dim voter enthusiasm, high unfavorability ratings and deep skepticism from voters.
Perhaps the most telling sign of all: Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders polled higher than both in one-on-one matchups, winning a potential contest with Trump 47 percent to 42 percent. Although Clinton seems poised to win her party’s nomination, the AJC poll is among a string of surveys bolstering Sanders’ case that he poses the bigger threat to Trump.
Both front-runners have sky-high name recognition — and devastatingly high unfavorability ratings. Nearly two out of three voters have a negative view of Clinton, including a crushing majority of Republicans. A slightly lower number of voters have a negative view of Trump, including a crushing majority of Democrats.
In short, partisans from both sides hate the other party’s candidate.
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That gives Georgia’s independent voters, a reliably conservative bunch that has backed Republicans the past two decades, an even more influential role in November. The poll found independents were split right down the middle over the leading contenders. An additional 13 percent of independents either said they are undecided or support neither candidate.
“I don’t agree with either leading candidate,” said Luke Donohue, a 25-year-old attorney who is considering a vote for a Libertarian candidate in November. “My friends tell me I’m helping Hillary. And if I lived in Ohio or Florida, that may be more true. But I am not going to vote blindly just because of party allegiance.”
Another indelible message of how polarizing the race was can be found in the response from Georgians asked why they back Clinton’s campaign. About half say they see their vote for Clinton chiefly as a vote against Trump. The billionaire’s backers are almost as divided, with a slim majority saying they’re voting for him mainly out of opposition to Clinton.
“I wasn’t really a Trump supporter, but he’s the only one left standing, so I ended up there,” said Paul Jones, a 69-year-old from Newnan. “But Trump is better than Clinton. She’s a disaster. I’m amazed that the Democratic Party wasn’t smarter than they were.”
‘He’s my only option’
The poll gives new heft to claims by Georgia Democrats that they can turn the Peach State blue, or at least a shade of purple, for the first time since Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory.
Their strategy to reverse the GOP tide relies on two major factors: the possibility that outrage over Trump’s divisive statements could send independent-minded women fleeing from the Republican camp, and a surge of support from minorities that fueled Clinton’s victory in Georgia’s March 1 presidential primary.
The AJC poll seemed to reinforce both trends — though with caveats.
About 63 percent of women had a negative view of the real estate tycoon, whose critics label him a sexist. Still, a significant portion of the women who raised concerns are willing to hold their nose and vote for Trump anyways.
Consider Michelle Flinn, a 43-year-old homemaker from Smyrna, who quickly rattles off a litany of complaints about Trump. She doesn’t like his brusque mannerisms, fears he jumps to conclusions too quickly and worries he doesn’t think his policies through.
And yet: “He’s my only option to beat the Democrats,” Flinn said. “And he’s a very smart man who will surround himself with very smart people. Besides, I feel Hillary is so morally and ethically challenged, and I don’t trust her at all.”
And while Clinton’s support among minorities seems solid — three out of four black voters give her positive reviews, and an even higher number said they would vote for her — her campaign would likely need to drive minority turnout to new heights to win the state.
Clinton must also overcome an even bigger deficit with Georgia men. Two-thirds of male voters give her poor marks, including Allen Clark, a 58-year-old food service worker in Kennesaw who favors Sanders.
“I’m not interested in having Trump in the White House at all, and Hillary Clinton is the poster child for the status quo and that status quo hasn’t served the middle class at all,” he said.
So what’s he going to do?
“I’m going to sit out November. At this point in my life — I’ve observed politics for a long time,” he said. “I’ve been on both sides of the fence, and I’m entirely sure that both parties are bought and paid for. Voting is a waste of time.”
‘Too extreme for me’
Trump faces his own set of challenges in Georgia. The poll showed he still dominates the bloc of religious conservatives who helped deliver him a commanding victory in the state’s primary. And he earned solid majorities in Atlanta’s vote-rich suburbs and among households with incomes of $100,000 or more.
But, along with his problems with women, almost two-thirds of younger voters also have an unfavorable impression of him. And while a slim majority of voters said they were more confident in Trump’s handling of the economy and the scourge of terrorism, they give the former secretary of state the advantage on foreign policy, middle-class issues and health care.
“She’s got the experience. While there may have been other candidates that had innovative ideas, she’s the candidate who can move Georgia forward,” said Ray Christie, a 48-year-old Atlanta video producer. “Trump has no experience and he’s too extreme for me.”
And Trump, who became the Republican standard-bearer thanks to an insurgent anti-establishment tide, could now also be tainted by the party’s bruised image. A majority of Georgians gave the GOP a negative rating — including two out of three independent voters.
“Trump, he’s just a comedian. I don’t think badly of him. I was inspired by him as a kid,” said John Hargraves, a 48-year-old real estate investor who considers himself an independent. “But I don’t think he’s cut out to run the country.”
As both candidates shift to November — and uniting their fractured parties — they must also confront a lack of enthusiasm and general disgust with the race. Most Georgians feel the political system is not working like it should. And roughly one in 10 signaled they’re searching for a third-party candidate or that they won’t vote at all.
“Honestly, the presidential process is a rat race. It’s repetitive,” said Gabriel Gonzales, a 23-year-old urban farmer from Candler Park who is among the likely nonvoters. “Something has to change — something has to change outside of the race. Or else it’s just going to be the same as it always is.”