Why suburban Atlanta women are a top Georgia 2020 focus

Voters line up to cast their ballots at a Sandy Springs precinct. The once reliably Republican suburbs of Atlanta could help determine elections up and down the ballot in Georgia this year, and suburban women could be the key. Republicans and Democrats are both gearing their messages with that in mind. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM.

Both presidential campaigns are zeroing in on suburban women. What do Georgia’s think?

Carol Geraci describes herself as politically “middle-of-the-road,” the kind of person who can get along with anybody.

For more than four decades, the Smyrna grandmother voted for Republicans, but in recent years she believes the party has drifted too far to the right. In November, she plans to cast her ballot for Democrat Joe Biden, less because of his platform and more to register her opposition to President Donald Trump.

“I go on character,” Geraci said, “and Trump doesn’t have character.”

Sabrina Mao of Marietta is firmly in the opposite direction. To her, the protests that erupted during the social justice movement prove that Democrats have no “moral grounding.”

“The riots, the protests — they really got me,” Mao said. “I can’t imagine someone breaking into my house and taking my stuff. That’s just not decent. I love that Trump will restore order. Think of a family whose children won’t listen to their parents. You don’t have to agree with everything your parents say, but you don’t beat them up either.”

In a wild 2020 election shaped by pandemic, protests and polarizing politics, suburban women could well determine the fate of Georgia’s presidential race, two U.S. Senate elections and down-ballot contests. And both parties have sharpened their pitches to win over the once-reliably Republican bloc.

With Atlanta’s suburbs no longer as monolithically white as they once were, the parties are gearing their message toward an increasingly diverse audience. Biden’s campaign has used the U.S. Supreme Court vacancy created by the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg to hammer kitchen-table issues such as health care that helped Democrats gain ground in 2018.

Trump’s campaign has emphasized his economic platform — one of the areas where Georgia voters give him the edge over Biden — along with warnings of suburban crime and declining property values if he’s defeated in November.

“Biden will destroy your neighborhood and your American Dream,” Trump stated in a July tweet addressed to “the Suburban Housewives of America.”

There’s a reason behind his messaging. Exit polls show the GOP has lost the suburbs only three times since Jimmy Carter’s defeat in 1980: in 1992, 1996 and 2008. Democrats won the White House in all three of those elections.

ExploreAJC poll: Race for president, Senate contests in Georgia ‘too close to call’
ExploreComplete poll results

‘Winning strategy?'

Atlanta’s suburban women were once an overwhelmingly conservative bunch. They helped send Newt Gingrich, Johnny Isakson and Tom Price to Congress and elect Ronald Reagan and both Bushes to the presidency.

But changing demographics and a distaste for Trump have put many of those same college-educated women in Atlanta’s bedroom communities up for grabs.

“When people talk about politics or ‘the suburbs’ they usually mean an antiquated version of what the suburbs is — a holdover from an earlier time," said Michelle Au, a Democratic physician running for a suburban state Senate seat. "But they’re completely different than how they’re portrayed. They’re diverse, they’re changing — and you can feel it changing politically.”

Some are newer residents with left-leaning stances, eager to make Republicans pay for conservative policies. Others are aligned with the GOP on issues such as taxes and abortion, but they helped Hillary Clinton flip the Republican strongholds of Cobb and Gwinnett counties in 2016 because they couldn’t stomach Trump.

Two years later, polls showed women in Greater Atlanta helped Stacey Abrams nearly win the governor’s race. Exit polls show she captured 51% of the suburban vote — 5 points more than Clinton in 2016. They also helped unseat Republican Karen Handel in the 6th Congressional District and flipped more than a dozen Statehouse seats.

Democrats have high hopes they can expand that margin in the 'burbs this year.

State Rep. Jasmine Clark, who flipped a Gwinnett County-based district in 2018, said she doesn't believe Republicans recognize the demographic shifts that have taken place in Atlanta's suburbs. “You’ve got a president saying he’s trying to protect ‘suburban housewives’ from undesirables, but I don’t think they realize that it’s sending a message to people like me and my Hispanic neighbor and my Asian neighbor,” she said. “It wasn’t a winning strategy in the suburbs in 2018, and it won’t be in 2020.” (Casey Sykes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Casey Sykes

Credit: Casey Sykes

State Rep. Jasmine Clark, a Democrat who flipped a Gwinnett-based district in 2018, said Republicans often underestimate how diverse suburbia has become. She said she won’t soon forget a forum two years ago when her GOP opponent expressed shock at encountering so many immigrant families in the Lilburn area.

“You’ve got a president saying he’s trying to protect ‘suburban housewives’ from undesirables, but I don’t think they realize that it’s sending a message to people like me and my Hispanic neighbor and my Asian neighbor,” said Clark, who is Black. “It wasn’t a winning strategy in the suburbs in 2018, and it won’t be in 2020.”

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution survey released this week didn’t carve out suburbs, but it showed Trump’s support among white voters down a bit. Biden captured roughly 30% of the white vote — far higher than exit polls showed Clinton fared among those Georgia voters in 2016.

It also showed a sharp gap between white men and women. While about 25% of white male Georgia voters back Biden’s campaign, that number jumped to 34% among white women.

And a New York Times-Siena College Research Institute poll of Georgia voters found those in the “inner” suburbs ringing the city overwhelmingly support Biden, while voters in the more exurban “outer” suburbs resoundingly back Trump.

Indeed, Biden’s chances of winning Georgia on the presidential level — Democratic White House candidates haven’t carried the state since 1992 — rest on expanding that gender gap. Ditto for the Democrats looking to unseat U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, win the Gwinnett and Forsyth County-based 7th Congressional District and wrest control of the Statehouse.

Democrats across suburbia are driving a message about expanding health care access — and pushing back on claims of chaos at the gates.

“We have to make sure they know the fear mongering isn’t going to work here. There’s not riots and looting and anarchists at the doorstep,” said Pallavi Purkayastha, a Democratic strategist in Johns Creek.

She said she’s advised Statehouse candidates to condemn the violence from the protests and distance themselves from the “defund police” movement while also pivoting back to a core message.

“What’s very real is that voters are much more likely to suffer from financial consequences of health care problems than from someone looting their store,” Purkayastha said.

The Democratic incursion has also forced Republicans to look further afield for their votes — namely, more sparsely populated rural areas where conservative politicians have long dominated.

“Republicans are absolutely strip-mining rural areas for votes that they used to be able to take for granted in metro Atlanta," said Todd Rehm, a veteran GOP strategist. “It takes a lot more work to produce 10 votes in South Georgia than 10 votes in the suburbs. But we just can’t find that traction in metro Atlanta anymore.”

‘A heck of a lot’

Republicans have history on their side.

Four years ago, Trump carried the suburbs by 4 percentage points, according to exit polls. And in Georgia, some 70% of white women in Georgia backed him.

Some of Trump’s supporters believe recent polls showing a tight race in the suburbs are overblown.

Dora Aguillon of Cumming and her two children, Nicolas, 10, and Rita (right), 9, display flags supporting President Donald Trump's reelection campaign. Aguillon, who said she is concerned about creeping socialism, is confident Trump will win in Atlanta's suburbs. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

“He’s going to win the suburbs. I promise,” said Dora Aguillon, a Cumming mother who sees Trump as a bulwark against creeping socialism. Her father left Cuba about 50 years ago, and she grew up hearing stories of government overreach and assaults on capitalism.

“We really believe that communism is at the door and we don’t want to answer it,” she said. “But I worry about it happening again, here, today. And I could see very clearly how it could happen.”

The Trump campaign is leaving little to chance.

Last month’s Republican National Convention was stacked with speeches from family members and women in Trump’s inner circle who spoke to the president’s less confrontational side, including the first lady, daughter Ivanka and press secretary Kayleigh McEnany.

On the policy front, Trump has honed a “law and order” message that frames himself as the only person who can keep America safe from the “angry mobs” marching for racial justice in cities such as Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Portland, Oregon. He’s also repeatedly — and falsely — stated that Biden wants to defund the police.

The message seems to be resonating more with some than others. Barbara McAdams, a Lawrenceville retiree, has her frustrations with Trump. But she appreciates how he is “really trying to bring the safety issue across to people in the suburbs.”

“When he tweets sometimes and some of the things he says drives me absolutely nuts,” McAdams said. “But the man has kept every promise he made and more that he made while running for office. That means a heck of a lot to me.”

For others, it’s too little, too late. Michelle Cardillo, a stay-at-home mom from Alpharetta, tried to give Trump a chance. She liked that he was willing to take steps against illegal immigration but believes his tactics were too heavy-handed.

“He has demonstrated a lack of awareness of the responsibility and restrictions of being president and what the job really means,” said Cardillo, who reluctantly plans to vote for Biden. “I tried not to be partisan but kept being disappointed.”

Staff writer Tia Mitchell contributed to this article.

AJC poll

The poll was conducted Sept. 11-20 for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution by the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs. It questioned 1,150 likely voters and has a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

Whom do you favor in the presidential election?

Donald Trump — 47%

Joe Biden — 47%

Jo Jorgensen — 1%

Undecided — 4%

Whom do you favor in the U.S. Senate election?

David Perdue — 47%

Jon Ossoff — 45%

Shane Hazel — 4%

Undecided — 5%

Whom do you favor in the U.S. Senate special election?

Kelly Loeffler — 24%

Doug Collins — 21%

Raphael Warnock — 20%

Matt Lieberman — 11%

Ed Tarver — 5%

Brian Slowinski — 3%

Other candidate — 1%

Undecided — 17%

Do you strongly approve, somewhat approve, somewhat disapprove, or strongly disapprove of the way Donald Trump is handling his job as president?

Strongly approve — 39%

Somewhat approve — 10%

Somewhat disapprove — 5%

Strongly disapprove — 46%

Don’t know — 1%

Regardless of how you intend to vote, who do you think would do a better job of handling the economy?

Donald Trump — 54%

Joe Biden — 42%

Don’t know — 4%

Regardless of how you intend to vote, who do you think would do a better job of responding to the coronavirus pandemic?

Donald Trump — 46%

Joe Biden — 48%

Don’t know — 6%

Regardless of how you intend to vote, who do you think would do a better job of addressing racial inequality?

Donald Trump — 41%

Joe Biden — 51%

Don’t know — 8%

How do you plan to vote in this election: absentee by mail, early in-person, or in-person on Election Day?

Absentee ballot — 27%

Early voting — 37%

Election Day — 34%

Don’t know — 3%

Overall, how confident are you that the November election will be conducted fairly and accurately? Are you...

Very confident — 22%

Somewhat confident — 44%

Not so confident — 22%

Not at all confident — 11%

Don’t know — 1%

Do you support or oppose the protests held around the country responding to the death of George Floyd and other Black people at the hands of police?

Strongly support — 40%

Somewhat support — 17%

Somewhat oppose — 10%

Strongly oppose — 29%

Don’t know — 4%

Which concerns you more, the actions of police against George Floyd and others, or protests that have turned violent?

Police — 37%

Protests — 46%

Both — 14%

Don’t know — 3%

How confident are you that the police in this country treat white and Black people equally? Are you …

Very confident — 23%

Somewhat confident — 29%

Not so confident — 17%

Not at all confident — 29%

Don’t know — 2%

Do you approve or disapprove of the way Donald Trump is handling the coronavirus outbreak?

Strongly approve — 37%

Somewhat approve — 11%

Somewhat disapprove — 5%

Strongly disapprove — 44%

Don’t know — 2%

Do you approve or disapprove of Gov. Brian Kemp’s handling of the coronavirus in Georgia?

Strongly approve — 33%

Somewhat approve — 16%

Somewhat disapprove — 10%

Strongly disapprove — 37%

Don’t know — 3%

How worried are you that you or someone in your family will be exposed to the coronavirus (COVID-19)?

Very worried — 28%

Somewhat worried — 36%

Not too worried — 17%

Not worried at all — 16%

Don’t know — 2%

On some questions, totals may not add up to 100% because of rounding.

Poll information: The survey was administered by the School of Public and International Affairs Survey Research Center at the University of Georgia. The AJC-SPIA Poll was conducted Sept. 11-20, 2020, and included a total of 1,150 likely general election voters in Georgia. The calculated margin of error for the total sample is +/-4.3 points at the 95% confidence level.

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