Trump aims to rev up Georgia’s rural faithful — and offset Dems' gains

President Donald Trump, shown at a rally earlier this month at the Middle Georgia Regional Airport in Macon, has gone back to his 2016 playbook in Georgia by pushing hard for white, conservative voters in the state's rural areas. Exit polls showed he won two-thirds of the state's rural vote in 2016, with some smaller counties favoring him by more than 90%. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
President Donald Trump, shown at a rally earlier this month at the Middle Georgia Regional Airport in Macon, has gone back to his 2016 playbook in Georgia by pushing hard for white, conservative voters in the state's rural areas. Exit polls showed he won two-thirds of the state's rural vote in 2016, with some smaller counties favoring him by more than 90%. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

‘Without us, he can’t win'

CARTERSVILLE — Eddie Billue was an enthusiastic Donald Trump supporter from “day one," but something about this year’s presidential race feels even more urgent to the Bartow County resident.

“It’s more about the future of the whole country instead of just an election between Republican and Democrat,” said Billue, a registered nurse from White. “We’re voting for life as we know it.”

If Trump is going to carry Georgia’s 16 electoral votes on Tuesday, he’ll need to drive up turnout among his strongest bloc of supporters: white, conservative men — people just like Billue — in the state’s lightly populated areas.

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That demographic overwhelmingly backed Trump’s presidential bid in 2016. And Republican Brian Kemp punched his ticket to the Governor’s Mansion two years ago by maximizing that same coalition, capturing about 90% of votes cast in rural Georgia.

Now, in the closing days of a neck-and-neck race, Trump is trying to wring out every vote he can from rural and exurban swaths of Georgia where he’s already expected to dominate in November. Nowhere was Trump’s intent clearer than his announcement that he’d return to Georgia for a Sunday rally in Rome, a city of 36,000 at the heart of one of the state’s most solidly Republican territories.

“He’s got to close the deal. My district is so solidly Trump it’s unbelievable. But there are a number of people on the fence,” said state Rep. Terry Rogers, who represents a rural patch of northeast Georgia.

“Basically, without us, he can’t win," Rogers said. "The reality, I’m telling folks in rural areas, is we have to turn out huge to offset what’s happening in liberal parts of Georgia.”

With Joe Biden and down-ballot Democrats making major inroads in Atlanta’s densely populated suburbs, Trump is dusting off his 2016 playbook to keep alive his party’s winning streak in a state he can’t afford to lose.

No Democratic presidential hopeful has carried Georgia since 1992, but Biden is polling even with the president in a spate of recent statewide polls. And the number of undecided voters is shrinking by the day, totaling just 4% in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s poll earlier this month.

“I’m confident, but it’s a little worrisome because you just don’t know,” said John Cashner, a Monroe retiree who boasts of his early support for Trump tracing back to his 2015 announcement. “It’s why you’re seeing big support for him in small towns like this one. We can’t let the country go to the left.”

‘People are hurting’

Four years ago, Trump carried Georgia by 5 percentage points with a populist-tinged message of curtailing illegal immigration, renegotiating unfair trade deals and ridding Washington of its ruling elites. Exit polls show he won two-thirds of the vote in rural areas, and he captured some small counties by more than 90%.

This year, poll after poll suggests that Biden has siphoned off more Republican support in the Atlanta suburbs, particularly among women who hesitantly backed Trump four years ago because they loathed Hillary Clinton.

Biden has upped the pressure by doing what no Democratic presidential hopeful has tried in decades: a late push to flip Georgia. He campaigned last week in Warm Springs and Atlanta, and vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris returned to Georgia on Sunday and former President Barack Obama is coming Monday.

If Biden is able to peel off even a few percentage points worth of white men in rural or exurban areas, that could spell doom for Trump’s campaign in Georgia.

Combined ShapeCaption
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, shown speaking at a drive-in rally last week at the amphitheater at Lakewood, has increased pressure on President Donald Trump's reelection campaign by making a late push for Georgia. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, shown speaking at a drive-in rally last week at the amphitheater at Lakewood, has increased pressure on President Donald Trump's reelection campaign by making a late push for Georgia. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Combined ShapeCaption
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, shown speaking at a drive-in rally last week at the amphitheater at Lakewood, has increased pressure on President Donald Trump's reelection campaign by making a late push for Georgia. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Polls suggest the Democrat has gained ground. A recent Monmouth University poll showed that 48% of Georgia men plan to back Biden, compared with the 37% who voted for Clinton here four years ago, according to exit polls.

“People are hurting, and they feel like the Republican leadership hasn’t done the job. They feel there’s a lot of mistakes made during this pandemic, and the economic consequences have been dire,” said Wendy Davis, a Rome city councilwoman and prominent Democratic activist.

“What we’re going to see Tuesday is that a lot of people want a government that works," Davis said, "and Republicans haven’t been able to make it work for everyday Georgians.”

Republicans have long acknowledged they can’t rely on the Trump strategy in the long term, especially as the number of young people and voters of color expand in Georgia. But they hope it will be enough to eke out a win this cycle.

In Georgia, Trump has invoked base-pleasing issues, labeled Democrats as socialists and touted his administration’s agricultural programs. And some Republicans believe Democrats could overstep to appeal to their liberal base, turning off moderate voters as a result.

“In 40 years I’ve never heard a president say ‘farm’, ‘farmer’ and ‘agriculture’ so much as Donald Trump,” state Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black said, “and he backs those words up with policies and the focus of his staff.”

‘First to blink?’

Republicans have reason to feel optimistic. By Friday, early-voting participation had already surpassed the 2016 total turnout in roughly a dozen conservative-leaning counties. And Republican candidates point to signs of on-the-ground enthusiasm, such as the thousands who showed up for Trump’s last Georgia rally in Macon.

Karen Owen, a University of West Georgia political scientist, said Trump’s rhetoric is resonating more outside Atlanta’s cities and suburbs because they tend to be less diverse. But as Atlanta commuters start moving into the exurbs, political changes might speed up.

“I think the Republican Party has to start looking at their coalition of voters and being honest that they’re going to have to open up and start talking to younger voters, voters of color," said Owen, a former aide to Nathan Deal when he was a member of Congress.

Combined ShapeCaption
Georgia Republicans claim they have the advantage in terms of voter enthusiasm, and as an example they point to the thousands who came to see President Donald Trump earlier this month in Macon. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Georgia Republicans claim they have the advantage in terms of voter enthusiasm, and as an example they point to the thousands who came to see President Donald Trump earlier this month in Macon. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Georgia Republicans claim they have the advantage in terms of voter enthusiasm, and as an example they point to the thousands who came to see President Donald Trump earlier this month in Macon. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Republicans are often quick to agree. Chip Lake, a GOP strategist advising U.S. Rep. Doug Collins' campaign for the Senate, offered a snapshot of the tug of war in Georgia.

“I’ve long been of the belief that Republicans cannot continue to hemorrhage suburban voters en masse and Democrats can’t continue to hemorrhage rural voters en masse," he said.

“Neither dynamic, which has existed the last two election cycles, is sustainable long-term,” Lake said. "So the question becomes which one of those dynamics is first to blink?”