In Chatham County, voters are still waiting to hear candidates’ messages

Savannahians are ‘tuned out’ on presidential election as Biden deals with wars and Trump with court trials
Shirley James poses at her desk at the Savannah Tribune newspaper office on Wednesday, May 29, 2024 in Savannah, GA. (AJC Photo/Katelyn Myrick)

Credit: Katelyn Myrick

Credit: Katelyn Myrick

Shirley James poses at her desk at the Savannah Tribune newspaper office on Wednesday, May 29, 2024 in Savannah, GA. (AJC Photo/Katelyn Myrick)

SAVANNAH — Robert Adams sees, hears and reads about the two presidential front-runners, Joe Biden and Donald Trump, every day — for all the wrong reasons.

Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, is “always in court,” Adams said, while Biden, a Democrat, “is tied up in dealing with wars overseas.” As a resident of a densely populated urban county where voter turnout can influence statewide election results, Adams bemoans these distractions and their effect on the politically disengaged.

“They have to do something to get people riled up, and not just the die-hard supporters who think Trump is being treated unfairly by the legal system or that everything Biden does is great,” Adams said. “People are tuned out.”

Adams, a 43-year-old father of two who works as a bookkeeper in a local bank, overhears scant election chatter at sports fields, school events and work. He understands that high voter turnout in the state’s most populous counties, including Chatham, made Georgia a battleground state decided by fewer than 12,000 votes in the 2020 election.

But he senses none of the election energy this year he noticed in 2020 and fears consequences at the polls. Without a U.S. Senate race on the ballot this time — there were two in 2020 — Adams expects the campaigning to remain muted until after Labor Day.

Shirley James, publisher of a Black-owned weekly newspaper, The Savannah Tribune, sighed heavily when asked whether local African Americans have lost an appreciation for the hard-won voting rights secured during the Civil Rights Movement.

“We fought so hard for so long,” she said. “But with each generation, we get farther away.”

Arna Cooper, a 92-year-old Savannahian with 27 family members of voting age, said the candidates need to motivate Black voters. She’s not hearing what the candidates, if elected, plan to do to improve the lives of Americans.

“Voters under the age of 70, they’re looking forward, and they’re not hearing any positive ideas that would interest them,” she said. “Biden, he needs to be out there. Many voters who came out for him four years ago need a reason to come out again.”

Adams and Cooper are Democratic-leaning Black Savannahians, members of a key voting bloc in Chatham. Four years ago, Chatham saw a 20% increase in voter turnout compared with 2016, including a 10% bump among Black voters. A record number of Black Savannahians cast ballots in 2020, spurred by the U.S. Senate campaign of native son Raphael Warnock, encouragement from Stacey Abrams and former President Barack Obama, and dissatisfaction with Trump’s presidency.

But Biden shouldn’t count on the same support this time, Adams and Cooper said. Memories of Trump’s “shenanigans,” such as his dismissive attitude toward the COVID-19 pandemic, have faded and lessened the enthusiasm to go to the polls.

When Adams talks to voting-age teens and 20-somethings about casting their ballots, he said they frequently say they don’t want to stand in line to vote. Hannah Holliman, an undergraduate student at Savannah State University, acknowledges first-time voters like her are not engaged with the race, at least this far removed from Election Day.

“With who’s running, I’m not focused on it,” she said. “We kind of know what to expect.”

Statistically, Black turnout still lags that of white Savannahians. In 2020, that margin was 34% to 55%, a difference of about 28,000 votes. Those numbers are why Adams said political organizations need to revive broadly focused get-out-the-vote campaigns such as the 1990s “Rock The Vote” and the more recent “Vote Or Die!” push.

He’s waiting on the campaigns to ramp up their policy messaging. Both candidates have records to run on, yet he hears little talk about what either accomplished — or struggled with — during their time in office. Those points are “lost in the noise” with voters who only passively follow politics, Adams said.

Cooper said a full campaign blitz is in order.

“We don’t have too much time; we need to get this thing started,” she said. “We’re wasting too much time on other things.”