The majority of Georgia voters believe the country is on the wrong track, but most don’t agree with Republican Donald Trump’s vision of a nation in decline. And more voters than ever said they’ll pick Democrat Hillary Clinton as the candidate who can bring the change they demand.
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll shows a deeply divided Georgia electorate gives Clinton a 4-point edge in a head-to-head matchup against Trump. And it shows Libertarian Gary Johnson, who barely cracked 1 percent in Georgia in 2012, soared into double digits when the question includes third-party candidates.
A Clinton victory would be a stunning upset in Georgia, which has voted for the GOP nominee since 1996. Georgia still isn’t directly in Clinton’s cross hairs, but giddy Democrats are hopeful that Trump skeptics flee the GOP in droves. And Republicans are digging in, preparing to defend 16 electoral votes once thought to be safe.
Voters for both candidates cited a steadily eroding view of the nation’s direction, but many on both sides of the aisle said the threat of overseas violence or domestic attacks isn’t what’s keeping them up at night.
“The country is full of unrest, but my main concern isn’t terrorism. It’s making sure my daughter’s life is improved,” said Marlon Caldwell, a White County community volunteer. “And Trump is a threat to that improvement. He doesn’t have a clear plan, and there are a lot of groups that are alienated. We just don’t know what’s happening.”
Trump’s backers have lofty expectations for the candidate who has repeatedly declared that he will quell violence and bring “law and order” to the forefront. One of them is Bob Mayfield, a 60-year-old landlord from College Park who won’t let his two children watch the news.
“When I was a kid in the 1960s we had values. I just think the country has gotten away from all of that, and I don’t think we’re getting any closer,” Mayfield said. “Somehow, we have to get all of that back.”
‘It’d be funny if it wasn’t real’
The AJC poll’s findings come after the end of both conventions and a particularly rough patch for Trump, who engaged in a war of words with the family of a slain Muslim U.S. soldier that led many leading Republicans to rebuke him.
Among the ex-Republicans who are backing Clinton is Tadd Franke, a Peachtree Corners software engineer on the verge of retirement. He’s fed up, above all else, with gridlock in Congress, and his first response to a question about his vote for the Democrat was a deep laugh.
“Why Clinton? She’s the only one with experience. Everywhere else she’s gone, she’s been successful. And she’s risen above a 20-plus-year smear campaign,” he said. “That’s what matters.”
Harry H. Harrison, a Trump supporter, is just as distraught. He grew up in a South Georgia county six decades ago that featured exactly one GOP voter: his uncle. Harrison switched parties years ago, and he remembers the same hand-wringing in the 1980s over another GOP newcomer.
“I can remember them saying the same things about Ronald Reagan that they said about Trump,” said Harrison, who now lives in Marietta. “And Reagan turned out pretty good.”
The Democratic strategy to reclaim Georgia relies on winning independent-minded voters, a reliably conservative bunch that has backed Republicans in the state the past two decades, and a surge from minorities that fueled Clinton’s win in the March 1 presidential primary. On both counts, Clinton appears to be in position in Georgia to compete.
The poll shows independents are deeply divided between the two candidates, giving Clinton and Trump each 36 percent support. Nearly one-quarter of independents are leaning toward a third-party candidate, though Republicans are confident many will break toward the GOP before November.
“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” said Jill Jones, a 59-year-old Forsyth County entrepreneur who said she’ll vote for Libertarian Gary Johnson. “It’d be funny if it wasn’t real.”
The divide among Georgia’s minority voters is much starker. A whopping 87 percent of black voters lean toward a vote for Clinton, while Trump’s support is a statistically insignificant 2 percent. That’s a far cry from the prediction by Leo Smith, the Georgia GOP’s minority engagement chairman, who said Trump will reach 20 percent of the black vote.
“Trump is unprepared at this time to be president of the United States,” said Gene Nash, an ex-educator from Vidalia who is African-American. “He doesn’t have the temperament. And everything he says he makes a joke of.”
‘Reluctant is the word’
Clinton also faces her own set of deep challenges in Georgia. She is trounced by Trump among voters who are 65 and older, the most reliable voting bloc in the state. And, like many Democrats in Georgia, she struggles with the white voters who make up the bulk of the electorate, attracting just one-fifth of the white vote.
“I don’t trust Hillary Clinton and never will,” said John Goodson, a Trump supporter from Chickamauga who is white. “I was born a Democrat and I was a Democrat until recently. But I cannot vote for that woman. I just don’t trust her. This is definitely a vote against Clinton.”
Goodson touched on another common thread of this polarizing campaign. About half of Clinton’s supporters see their vote for her chiefly as a vote against Trump. And a slim majority of Trump’s backers say they’re voting for him mainly to stick it to Clinton.
“I’m going to hold my nose and vote for him and hope I don’t vomit when I got done. Reluctant is the word,” said Rich Mason, a 56-year-old executive from Sandy Springs, on his vote for Trump. “I’m a fiscal conservative but a social liberal. It amazes me that with 320 million people in this country, we ended up with these two.”
Some Democrats, including supporters of Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, are just as unexcited. Randall Weems, a 47-year-old who works in health care, said Trump isn’t presidential and Clinton hasn’t proved herself worthy of the office.
“I’m not a fan of either of them, but I’d have to vote for Clinton,” he said. “At least she’ll bring dignity to the office.”
‘No longer that powerhouse’
The polls show Georgians have a steadily declining view of the nation’s direction, though half give President Barack Obama favorable reviews.
In January, 62 percent of respondents said they feared the country was headed down the “wrong track.” In the survey released Friday, that number had swelled to 67 percent, including two-thirds of independents and a staggering 90 percent of Republicans.
“We’re no longer that powerhouse, that No. 1. And all the other nations are getting out of hand,” said Tim Berrios, a 49-year-old military veteran who works for a tech company. “We were kind of the big brother of all nations in the world, and now we’re weak. We have a president right now and all he’s done is gone on a world tour and say ‘I’m sorry.’ ”
The poll showed Trump has the edge over Clinton on the handling of the nation’s economy, tax policy and the threat of terrorism. Voters gave Clinton the advantage on health care policy, foreign affairs, middle-class challenges and immigration.
The numbers get more interesting when the poll tests both candidates’ campaign rhetoric without attaching their names.
About 40 percent of Georgia voters say they believe the nation is in decline and that the challenges it faces “threaten our way of life and demand a president who will establish law and order,” a mantra of Trump’s campaign speeches.
A clear majority — 53 percent — said they more closely embrace a vision of the nation that’s “stronger when all citizens are valued and work together to solve our toughest problems.” That’s an echo of Clinton’s “stronger together” slogan and rhetoric.
If the ground seems to be shifting — Friday’s poll was a reversal from the AJC poll in May that staked Trump with a 4-point lead — analysts caution that the race will inevitably tighten.
Georgia polls showed close races in the 2008 presidential contest and 2014 race for governor and an open U.S. Senate seat, and both years Republicans notched big wins.
And while some Republican operatives privately worry about the race, Trump supporters tried to tamp down their concern.
Brandon Phillips, the Trump campaign’s state director, told supporters that Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue trailed Michelle Nunn in more than a dozen polls in 2014. And former U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, now a Trump adviser, went on CNN to predict a sweeping GOP victory in the Peach State.
“I hope that Hillary Clinton spends a lot of time in Georgia and spends a lot of money,” the Savannah Republican said, “because that will free up our resources to go to Pennsylvania, Florida and other states.”
Democrats were quick to trumpet the poll as the latest declaration that Georgia is a battleground state. They’ve long said that changing demographics, including an influx of minority voters, could eventually put Georgia in play. But they hope the emergence of Trump accelerates that shift.
“Numbers don’t lie,” said party Chairman DuBose Porter, who was seconded by some voters. Among them is Carrie Hodge, a 32-year-old who backed Sanders in the March primary.
”It’s a purple state right now,” Hodge said, declaring herself a Clinton supporter despite not particularly liking either candidate. “That is pretty monumental.”
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Staff writers Aaron Gould Sheinin and Dan Chapman contributed to this article.