Georgia: Déjà Vu of Virginia?

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By Logan M. Finning

For the first time since Bill Clinton’s 1992 election to the presidency, the state of Georgia will cast its electoral votes for a Democrat. In a political transformation that became one of the most important stories of the 2020 election, Georgia broke away from its reliably Republican tendencies. Political analysts have scrambled for an explanation. Virginia, a fellow southern state, provides a point of comparison in its own recent political transformation.

The Commonwealth of Virginia’s 13 electoral votes can be counted on by the Democratic candidate when they wake up on the morning of election day, in the words of Catholic University Professor Matthew Green. Until recently, however, the Old Dominion State was considered dependable for Republicans. In each presidential election from 1968 through 2004, Virginia gave its electors to the Grand Old Party. The alliance of mostly white conservative voters in the state, both in the sizable rural population in the southern and eastern portions, as well as highly-educated suburbs of the District of Columbia contributed to the lasting coalition which gave the state its red hue. 

That alliance began to fall apart in the early twenty-first century. While the rural areas of the state remained fairly conservative, the Washington suburbs, especially Fairfax County, did not. Voters there began to shift away from the Republican Party for two principal reasons. One was the rightward shift in social policy that the party took under the George W. Bush Administration, alienating moderates, many of whom were concentrated in the suburbs. The other, perhaps more drastic change from northern Virginia, has been the steady influx of a more diverse population.

In the past decade, the number of Asian and Latino residents in Loudon county has more than doubled, while the white population has remained stagnant. The Virginia Grand Old Party has failed to appeal to these types of voters, contrary to the Republican parties of other states, like Florida. As a large portion of the state’s population resides in the northern counties surrounding Washington, this does not bode well for Republican candidates in Virginia. 

In 2000, Republican candidate George W. Bush won the state by eight points, and carried most of northern Virginia. By 2004, however, worrying signs for the Republicans began to appear. Bush won Virginia in his battle for re-election, again by eight points, but did not carry Fairfax County.

In 2008, Barack Obama became the first Democrat to carry Virginia since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. He carried both Loudoun and Fairfax counties, the former by over three 8points, the latter by over 20. He won Virginia overall by six points. This came in addition to Democrat Mark Warner’s landslide election to the United States Senate, following popular moderate Republican John Warner’s retirement. Since 2008, the Democratic nominee for president has won Virginia every time. 2020, however, has been the best year for Virginia Democrats in recent history, with Joe Biden carrying the state by 10 points. He handily carried Loudoun County by over 20 points, and obliterated Trump in Fairfax, taking nearly three quarters of votes cast. Biden also became the first Democrat to carry Virginia Beach, the most populous city in the state, since 1964. A win of this level signals that Virginia is now a solidly Democratic state. The failure of Republicans here serves as an example of the crucial need to appeal to changing demographics, a pattern happening three states south.

Georgia, one of five states that flipped from Republican to Democrat in the 2020 Presidential Election, did so for the first time in 28 years. Like Virginia, Georgia has seen remarkable population growth in the populous urban and suburban regions of Atlanta. DeKalb, Fulton, Gwinnett, Cobb, and Clayton counties have all gained substantial numbers of new residents in the past 10 years. Many of them belong to Black, Latino, or Asian minority communities, as in Virginia. All of these counties fell into Biden’s column on election day, similar to when Hillary Clinton won them in 2016.  However, what is notable is that they all swung far stronger for the Democrat this time. Biden won DeKalb County with 49,000 more votes than Clinton did in 2016, Fulton with 64,000 more, Gwinnett with 56,000 more, Cobb with 49,000 more, and Clayton with 14,000 more. While the rural areas of the state swung stronger for Trump, it was not enough to overcome the swing for Biden in the Atlanta metro region. 

Biden prevailed in Georgia by 0.2 points, or about 13,000 votes, adding 16 electoral votes to his victory count to make 306. In addition to his victory, the Democrats gained an open U.S. House seat in Georgia’s 7th District, anchored in Gwinnett County. They held a U.S. House seat they gained in 2018 from the Republicans, anchored in Cobb County. Both of Georgia’s incumbent Republican U.S. senators, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, failed to gain enough votes in the general election to avoid a runoff, which will take place early January. The small overall margin of victory for Biden does not make Georgia a safely blue state like Virginia has become. However, the Republicans will need to appeal to a more diverse coalition of voters in the Atlanta metro region if they intend to stay relevant in the Peach State long-term.

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