‘SEC primary’ reshapes campaign strategies in Georgia, across South

AJC on the trail

As the Georgia primary nears, presidential campaigns are revving up their activity in the Peach State and the rest of the South. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will be there at every step, including on ajc.com and myAJC.com. Over the next nine days, the AJC will:

  • Cover individual candidates' events and provide big-picture looks at the impact felt as a key spot in the campaign process.
  • Produce profiles of volunteers working for several of the major candidates.
  • Offer an explanation about how delegates are divvied up in Georgia.

  • Explore how the campaigns are playing out in other Southern states.
  • Provide coverage of the GOP debate Thursday in Houston.
  • Identify key counties in Georgia where Democratic and Republican candidates need to win to score greater success at the state level.
  • Report the results – and explain what happens next – after Georgia voters cast their ballots on March 1.

The line snaked around Morehouse College for blocks, with hundreds of people waiting for hours to hear Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders make his third in-person pitch to Georgia voters.

Would the Vermont senator have visited last week if Georgia’s primary wasn’t just around the corner? Who knows?

But what’s clear is that the March 1 regional SEC primary orchestrated by the state’s chief election official has reshaped campaign strategy this presidential cycle. And over the next 10 days, the contest combining Georgia, Texas and five other states south of the Mason-Dixon Line in one bloc could redefine the wildly unpredictable race for the White House.

Witness Donald Trump's plan to visit Georgia on Sunday, the day after the South Carolina GOP vote. Or Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio's decision to open a campaign office in Cobb County a week before the vote. Or Ohio Gov. John Kasich's town hall meeting next week at Kennesaw State University.

The campaigns of Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are eyeing a return to Georgia, too, but perhaps not until after the Democratic primary in South Carolina on Saturday.

Georgia’s role in an epic Super Tuesday contest is nothing new, but two elements make this contest dramatically different than, say, the 2012 primary.

The first is that four years ago, voters in 11 states got a crack at voting for presidential candidates before Georgia residents. This time, Georgia and the others that vote on March 1 follow only the four early-voting states: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. That could give Peach State voters a chance to help further shape the field.

And secondly, the March 1 grouping clusters Southern states together as a regional bloc unlike any other time in more than a decade. That could give the region’s hard-right Republican electorate and more diverse Democratic voter base more clout in the nominating process.

“That’s what this is all about — giving Georgia voters the opportunity to weigh in when it really matters,” Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp said. “We not only need to learn about the candidates, we need them to learn about us.”

Kemp began drafting the idea for the regional "SEC primary" more than two years ago, and he enticed counterparts in Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, Texas, Oklahoma and Virginia to follow suit. Six other states across the nation, from Alaska to Vermont, will also hold votes on March 1.

Will it make a difference?

Every major presidential candidate has visited Georgia at least once, from low-key addresses to the Georgia House to raucous rallies at Macon Coliseum and the Fox Theatre. And a full calendar of campaign events in Georgia is now taking shape over the next weeks.

Yet some say the number of visits is more of an indication of Atlanta’s role as a fundraising hot spot than an emerging role in the national conversation.

"Honestly, much of this has been a wash for Georgia. The Peach State is in the same spot on the calendar it was four years ago," said Josh Putnam, who writes the Frontloading HQ blog. And this year, he added, Georgia must compete with other large states such as Massachusetts, Texas and Virginia for attention.

Bobby Kahn, a longtime fixture in Democratic politics who once headed the state party, noted the dearth of advertising so far as a sign that Georgia doesn’t seem poised to play an outsized role in the contest. Clinton’s campaign became the first to air televised spots in Georgia late last week, placing two ads in Macon.

“It’s too close to other races, and there’s too many other states in play,” Kahn said. “This has really only worked for Georgia one time — in 1992 when it helped resurrect Bill Clinton’s campaign.”

For a counterpoint, though, look no further than Georgia's neighbor. Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill said the tiny community of Guntersville hadn't received a visit from a presidential candidate since the 1930s — until Rubio visited in December. He rattled off other off-the-beaten-path locales that welcomed campaign stops over the past year.

“People might say that Atlanta or a couple of other places will get visits anyways. But I’ll tell you this, they can’t say that in Alabama or Arkansas,” he said. “And if it wasn’t for Brian’s vision in putting this together and calling me to help, they wouldn’t have come here, to places like Guntersville and Pelham and Florence and Dothan.”

Critical to Clinton, Cruz

The Southern swing has certainly caused a shift in campaign tactics.

Clinton’s advisers hope that the regional vote can halt Sanders’ momentum after he notched a sweeping victory in New Hampshire. She’s staked her campaign on an appeal to minority voters in the South, and she’s long held an advantage among black voters in polls. He’s stepped up efforts for the same bloc, which is what brought him to Morehouse last week.

In the Republican race, no candidate has embraced the SEC primary quite like Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. He was among the first candidates to fully organize in Georgia and other March 1 states, lining up volunteer statewide chairmen and activists across the region. And he launched a jam-packed bus tour across the South in 2015, declaring the region his "firewall."

It is Trump, though, who leads in most polls across the region, while Rubio and other candidates competing for the mainstream vote are trying to emerge as the leading alternative candidate.

The rules governing how Georgia awards its 76 GOP delegates could make it more difficult. A candidate only gets delegates if they reach 20 percent of the vote, or if they finish first or second in one of Georgia’s 14 congressional districts. That sets a high bar for the establishment candidates, who fall below the 20 percent mark in most national polls.

As more candidates descend on Georgia, Kemp urges voters from both parties to pepper them with questions about Georgia priorities, such as securing more federal funding to deepen the Savannah Harbor or extracting promises to protect the state's military installations.

“Iowa seems to get something out of it every four years — we need to get something out of it, too.” he said. “Our chickens eating the Iowa corn are just as important as the ethanol plants they have.”