Georgia primary could set presidential rematch, but there’s more to it than that

Results could give Biden, Trump insight about the depth of their voter support

Georgia dealt Donald Trump some of his most humbling political setbacks over the past four years. On Tuesday, the state’s Republican voters will likely help the former president clinch his third consecutive GOP nod.

President Joe Biden is also on track to win the delegates on Tuesday that he needs to cement the Democratic nomination, which would crystallize a rematch of the grueling 2020 contest Trump narrowly lost.

Those milestones add significance to a Tuesday primary once seen as a pivotal moment in the White House race but now serves as little more than a trial run for bitter rivals who each plan to compete fiercely in Georgia.

The state is the only political battleground holding a primary on Tuesday, and it boasts the biggest trove of voters in a group that includes Hawaii, Mississippi and Washington state.

The outcome may be anticlimactic, but there are other significant dynamics at play as voters across the state head to the ballot box.

Biden’s campaign wants to use the primary to invigorate the tenuous coalition of liberals, Black voters and centrists who fueled his slim 2020 win.

His supporters also hope to sideline a nascent protest-vote movement over Biden’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war that calls for critics to cast a blank ballot in Tuesday’s election.

The initiative comes after more than 363,000 voters in Michigan and five Super Tuesday states voted “uncommitted” or a similar option to pressure Biden to take a tougher stance on Israel.

Trump wants a show of strength on the primary ballot in a state that has vexed him before. But there could be a small but potent bloc of opposition, since many of the 284,000 Republicans who cast early ballots did so before former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley quit the campaign.

Former president Donald Trump, the presumptive GOP nominee in this year's race for the White House, held a rally Saturday in Rome. (Arvin Temkar/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

icon to expand image

Credit: TNS

And both camps want to rev up turnout in a race that barely registered to many voters now that the main rivals to Biden and Trump have abandoned their bids. That’s no simple task.

“If you’re the average citizen right now, you’re probably thinking about soccer practice or Little League baseball or softball,” said Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political scientist.

“You’re not going to really engage until you get to November, when there will be hundreds of millions of dollars spent,” Bullock said.

‘A movement’

Indeed, mobilizing voters has already proved to be a challenge. Nearly 440,000 people cast primary ballots during early voting, far fewer than in the run-up to the 2020 primary when an open Democratic race drove voter participation.

About 284,000 Georgians have chosen GOP ballots, compared with roughly 155,000 Democratic ballots cast. Georgia law allows registered voters to participate in either party’s primary regardless of their political leanings.

Aides to both hope the rival rallies that Biden and Trump held Saturday in different parts of Georgia helped refocus attention on the upcoming votes and served as an unofficial start to the general election campaign.

“Saturday’s event and the State of the Union address were a way for our supporters in the state to get reenergized,” said Jonae Wartel, the Biden campaign’s senior adviser for Georgia. “The timing couldn’t be better. It gives us an opportunity to energize our grassroots voters.”

 President Joe Biden speaks Saturday during a rally at Pullman Yard in Atlanta. (Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer/AJC

icon to expand image

Credit: Steve Schaefer/AJC

Likewise for Trump, who drew roars of applause at his Rome rally when he said Georgia could help him formally clinch the party’s nomination.

“This is a movement that no one in this country has seen before,” he said.

As of Monday, Trump was 140 delegates short of the 1,215 needed to seal the nomination at the GOP convention this summer. There are 161 delegates in four states up for grabs on Tuesday, and the former president can win all of Georgia’s 59 delegates with a strong showing.

Biden, meanwhile, needs 102 to secure the 1,968 delegates necessary to win the Democratic nod. There are 254 Democratic delegates at stake on Tuesday, and the president appears likely to sweep the 108 Georgia offers.

‘Keep the energy going’

Clinching the nomination with Georgia’s help would be a juicy twist of fate for Trump’s supporters.

Trump’s 2020 defeat made him the first Republican to lose Georgia since 1992, and his demand that Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger “find 11,870 votes” to surpass Biden is a focus of Fulton County’s election trial.

His obsession with his defeat damaged the chances of Republican incumbents Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue in the state’s 2021 U.S. Senate runoffs. And in 2022, Trump suffered more setbacks in Georgia when all four of his hand-picked challengers to GOP incumbents were trounced in the primary and his recruit for a U.S. Senate seat, Herschel Walker, fell to Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock.

Former President Donald Trump, right, backed Herschel Walker as the GOP candidate in Georgia's 2022 U.S. Senate race. Walker lost in a runoff against Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock. Trump also saw his picks in four statewide races lose to incumbents in that year's GOP primary. (Hyosub Shin/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC/TNS

icon to expand image

Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC/TNS

Georgia is poised to again be in the crucible of an already nasty race.

Biden and his allies are already spending tens of millions of dollars on airtime in Georgia and a few other competitive states. A pro-Trump super PAC is firing back with a new TV spot that asks if “Biden wins, can he even survive till 2029?”

Karen Owen, a University of West Georgia political scientist, told the “Politically Georgia” podcast that the real challenge is engaging middle-of-the-road voters who likely won’t focus on the race until October.

“Will we see some different surprise from these candidates by then?” she said. “They’re going to have to really work hard to keep the energy going.”