Where’s the Blue Wave? Look in Georgia

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Coming into Tuesday's elections, Democrats dreamed of flipping all of the rapidly growing and urbanizing Sun Belt states and having the kind of landslide election result they haven't had in decades. With larger-than-expected losses in Florida and Texas, and a third straight defeat likely in North Carolina, it didn't turn out that way.

Georgia, where Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden now holds a slim lead pending the tabulation of provisional and overseas ballots, was the lone southern bright spot for them east of the Rocky Mountains, and one of the few states anywhere in the country where Democrats improved upon their already-strong performance in 2018. They can thank the unique demographic makeup of the state, which emphasized the advantages that boosted Democrats without the setbacks the party saw in other states.

It's a transformation I've been watching play out as a metro Atlanta resident over the past 10 years. The Democratic Party's first major push to "turn the state blue" was in 2014, when it tried to win back moderate south Georgia white voters who elected Democrats a generation ago by running Michelle Nunn for Senate and Jason Carter for governor, progeny of Democrats who had won statewide in the past. That effort fell short. Then former state House minority leader Stacey Abrams offered up a different model reflecting her belief that the party could win with the population it has today, which is the formula that appears to have finally delivered Democrats their statewide breakthrough. 

The foundation of the Democratic win nationally was two demographic groups that delivered for Democrats in Georgia: black voters and suburban communities. Georgia's electorate is roughly 30% African-American, one of the largest and fastest-growing Black communities in the country. And just as we saw in Detroit and Philadelphia, they came through for Biden in metro Atlanta to keep him competitive in the state.

But a large African-American population by itself isn't enough to turn a historically red state blue -- just ask Democrats in Louisiana and Mississippi. It was Georgia's continued shift towards Democrats in its rapidly growing and diversifying suburban and exurban communities in and around metro Atlanta, and to a lesser extent the smaller metro areas in the state, that was enough to turn the state's presidential contest into a dead heat.

Much has been written about Georgia's large and diverse suburban Cobb and Gwinnett counties, but even lesser-known and still largely white farther-flung counties like Paulding and Walton saw meaningful shifts towards Democrats between 2016 and 2020.

At the same time, Georgia was not affected by some of the factors that led Republicans to outperform the polls in other states. While Georgia has a growing Hispanic population, it doesn't have the same hold on the state's politics that Cuban voters do in south Florida or Latino voters do in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. Gwinnett County, where any kind of Hispanic shift towards Republicans would be most likely to occur, had a 12-point shift to Democrats between 2016 and 2020. Gwinnett County also delivered Democrats their only flipped House of Representatives seat in the entire country, with Carolyn Bourdeaux winning Georgia's 7th congressional district.

And in the Deep South, unlike Midwestern states (and even, to some extent, North Carolina), Democrats have already seemingly bottomed out with non-college white voters, routinely getting less than 20% of that vote. There was still room for those types of voters to shift more to Republicans in North Carolina, likely costing Biden the state, but that was not the case in Georgia.

To the extent that there was a large Blue Wave nationally offset by a somewhat smaller Red Wave, Georgia got the Blue Wave -- black and suburban voters -- without the Red Wave seen in some non-college white and Hispanic communities.

While Democrats won't be able to breathe easily in the state any time soon, Georgia has emerged as the rare place where Democrats are making gains across multiple groups and communities without any offsetting gains for Republicans.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Conor Sen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He has been a contributor to the Atlantic and Business Insider.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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