With Georgia once again a safe haven for the Republican presidential candidate, Democrats here gaze longingly at North Carolina and Virginia and wonder: Why can’t that be us?
Those two southern states turned blue in 2008, with Barack Obama capturing both on his way to becoming the 44th president of the United States. (Meanwhile, John McCain carried Georgia 52-47.)
Now, just weeks from the Nov. 6 general election, Virginia and North Carolina are again in play while Georgia has been little more than a drive-through bank for both sides. To understand why, Georgia Democrats need look no further than their inability to attract white voters.
In Obama’s first bid for the White House he received just 23 percent of the white vote here, compared to 39 percent in Virginia and 34 percent in North Carolina, according to exit polls. As of last week, Obama had the support of just 22 percent of Georgia’s likely white voters, according to a poll conducted for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and released Sunday.
Political analysts cite several factors as explanations for the difference: demographics, culture and organization.
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The demographic calculus centers primarily on education.
Non-Hispanic whites in North Carolina and (especially) in Virginia are more likely to have college degrees than their peers in Georgia, according to census figures.
Both Virginia and North Carolina have large pockets of highly educated, socially liberal white voters with strong connections to government, and they tend to vote Democratic. In Virginia they cluster in the D.C. suburbs of northern Virginia and in the Tidelands; in North Carolina they’re concentrated in the university-rich Research Triangle of Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill.
Whites in Virginia also enjoy a considerably higher average household income than in Georgia, although North Carolina lags both.
“I’m pretty sure, despite Atlanta, that Virginia’s educational level among whites is higher than Georgia,” said Larry Sabato, a national political expert at the University of Virginia. “It’s not income so much as it is education. The higher the education level, the more likely they are to vote Democratic.”
Ditto in North Carolina, said Jonathan Kappler, research director at the non-partisan North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation. “We’re an in-migration state, and the in-migration is happening in Democratic areas,” he said.
The same pattern doesn’t hold true in Georgia, said Doug Bachtel, a demographer and professor at the University of Georgia. Here, he said, new white residents “have tended to be more conservative — higher-educated and more conservative.”
In fact, Georgia state Rep. Edward Lindsey, R-Atlanta, might not have his post if college degrees translated neatly to Democratic proclivities. “Under that theory, Buckhead should be rock solid Democratic,” said Lindsey, the House majority whip who represents Buckhead.
The defining difference is the state’s deeply conservative culture, several analysts said. No matter what party ruled in Georgia, it was conservative. Today, conservatism is the province of the GOP, and that is what keeps Georgia red.
Lee Allen, a Valdosta State University political scientist, said that even though Americans famously embrace change as a path to progress, “many Georgians understand that sometimes changes can be reckless.” Therefore, he said, “they temper their commitment to the American dream of freedom by considered conservative principles.”
Lindsey seconded that sentiment. “Georgia has historically been, across the board, a very conservative state,” he said.
“When you look at the fact that Democrats had leaders like [Govs.] George Busbee, Joe Frank Harris, Zell Miller — men like that would be in the Republican Party today.”
Kennesaw State University political scientist Kerwin Swint, a former Republican activist, said that long before the GOP got a serious foothold at the state level, conservatism could trump party affiliation.
“You had conservative Democrats here voting for Nixon,” Swint said of the 1960 presidential race between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy.
But Swint said a third factor also explains the GOP’s current lock on the state: the organizational weakness of the state Democratic Party.
“The Democratic Party [in Georgia] has somewhat collapsed,” he said.
DuBose Porter, a former Democratic leader in the state House, said Swint’s verdict is undeniable. When Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat, lost his re-election bid in 2002, Porter said, “there was no infrastructure left,” because the governor’s office traditionally ran the state party.
“That’s something other states didn’t let happen,” said Porter, now a member of the Democratic National Committee.
Since 2002, the GOP has run roughshod over its once-dominant opponents, he said. “We continue to let Republicans define Democrats rather than us defining Democrats.”
Democrats in Georgia continue to do well in many urban areas, especially around Atlanta, where there are strong concentrations of racial and ethnic minorities. It’s in the hinterlands where Democrats struggle most.
Two rounds of Republican-led redistricting have contributed to their woes. As the Democrats did when it controlled the capitol, the GOP has used redistricting to bolster its majorities.
But, unlike the Democrats, it’s in the Republicans’ interest to accentuate a longstanding trend set in motion by the Voting Rights Act. That’s the trend toward two distinct types of districts: urban districts, full of black and Latino voters who lean Democratic; and suburban and rural districts, full of white voters who lean Republican.
Nevertheless, nothing in politics is static. Over time, forces such as the growth of the Latino population are likely to alter the political landscape, even in Georgia.
As the percentage of white voters declines in coming years, their reluctance to vote for Democrats will become less and less an electoral factor. Even Republicans acknowledge that evolution will probably put Georgia in the company of Virginia and North Carolina as battleground states — eventually.
In Washington County, east of Macon, Katherine Cummings said Democrats are starting over from the ground up. They are registering voters and showing signs of life for the first time in a while.
“The stool kind of got kicked out from under Democrats when Barnes was defeated,” she said. “The party has to establish itself with a presence of a community.”
There’s even hope for Democrats in traditionally Republican Glynn County, said St. Simons Island resident Charles Hill.
“St. Simons is mainly affluent whites who are retired and generally go Republican,” Hill said. This year, though, he said, “we’ve seen an awful lot of whites coming in to support Obama.”
Many of them, he said, are over 65 and are worried about Medicare and Social Security, mindful of Democrats’ claims that Mitt Romney would do irreparable harm to both.
“They’re not necessarily comfortable voting for a Democrat, but they probably will,” Hill said. “It probably breaks their heart to do it.”