ATLANTA — The Atlanta Hawks aren’t exactly the NBA’s winningest basketball team, but you’d never know it from the way their home court, State Farm Arena, hums and thrums during games. So it’s been something of a shock over the last few weeks to see the arena silent as a church in prayer while thousands of voters filed through to cast early ballots in the 2020 presidential election.
Queues of voters wound through the stadium’s concourse, past closed taco and pizza stands, past Casa Noble Tequila and Svedka Vodka stands, waiting to descend the steps of aisle 120 onto the arena floor, where dozens of voting machines waited. The Hawks opted not to have DJ music, mascots, giveaways or anything else that could distract focus — or open up the votes cast to any charges of corruption or impropriety.
The voters who filed into State Farm Arena from all over surrounding Fulton County were the most visible symbol yet that for many Georgians, politics have jumped from an occasional to-do list entry to a significant element of daily life.
After decades as a scarlet-red Republican state, Georgia is now firmly in the “tossup” camp, and scenes like State Farm Arena — fueled by a young, motivated and informed electorate — are part of the reason why. The state’s 16 electoral votes may or may not be decisive, but they’re now suddenly available to either candidate.
Two days ago, President Donald Trump traveled to Rome, Georgia, about 70 miles northwest of Atlanta, for a fly-in rally at a local airport. Also on Sunday, vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris spoke to supporters in Atlanta’s Gwinnett County, looking to shore up suburban support. And just a few blocks from State Farm Arena, former President Barack Obama hosted a rally Monday in support of Biden and Georgia’s two Democratic Senate hopefuls.
It’s an impressive display of political star power in the state, and it’s indicative of a new reality: Georgia is now in the unfamiliar position of battleground state. Like North Carolina, Texas and Arizona, Georgia is a state whose alignment is changing as younger, more diverse and more progressive voters concentrated in urban areas are starting to electorally outweigh more scattered, rural, conservative ones. The lessons Democrats learn from states like Georgia, and the efforts Republicans take to shore up support, will shape the nation’s electoral character in 2024, 2028 and beyond.
“You don’t turn a ship on a dime, and you don’t realign a state in a single election,” said Dr. Charles Bullock, professor of public and international affairs at the University of Georgia, “but Georgia is very much in the process of becoming more Democratic.”
Georgia’s history of Republican voting
Georgia has been a reliable Republican outpost for most of the last half-century. Since 1964, Georgia has only voted for the Democratic presidential candidate in three elections, and two of those were home-state Gov. Jimmy Carter. The third: fellow Southern Gov. Bill Clinton in 1992.
Most Georgia presidential races haven’t even been close. With the exception of Clinton in 1992 and ‘96, no Democratic challenger in Georgia has been within five percentage points of their Republican opponent since 1980. Indeed, Georgia has been so red for so long that a Democratic presidential candidate hadn’t even campaigned in Georgia since Clinton in 1996.
Democratic nominee Joe Biden also traveled to Georgia last week, another indicator of how sharply the math is changing in Georgia. As of election day, FiveThirtyEight’s composite polling average put Biden ahead, 48.5 to 47.4. The “poll of polls” collection of CNN, which is based in Atlanta, has Biden ahead by a three-point margin, 49 percent to 46 percent. RealClearPolitics put the margin at a single percentage point, with Trump ahead 48.2 to 47.2. The New York Times has designated Georgia as one of its states worthy of a “needle” — a real-time tracker that could help predict which way the presidential race will turn.
What’s changed? The state’s demographics … and the impact of Trump up and down the ballot.
Trump galvanizes, splinters Georgia
“In Georgia, as in other states, the Republican party relies primarily on White votes,” Bullock said. “The growing minority population is a Democratic population.” In 1996, three-quarters of voters were White, but in the 2018 election, just under 60 percent were White, according to Bullock.
In the past, Republicans counted on White voters to simply swamp the numbers of Black voters, who were 30.5 percent of Georgia’s voting total last presidential election. Non-college-educated White voters, who trend heavily Republican, made up 38.1 percent of the state’s electorate in 2016, with college-educated Whites comprising 24.4 percent.
The problem for Republicans, and specifically for Trump, is that the college-educated Whites have been trending Democratic in recent elections. Trump won college-educated Whites by 23 points in 2016 — but Mitt Romney had won them by 48 points just four years prior. A Monmouth University poll released last week put Trump’s support among college-educated Whites at just 7 percent better than Biden’s. (Georgia’s Republican Party did not respond to a request for comment.)
The key to that shift: the political divides that exist under one roof. “The White male vote in Georgia has always been solidly Republican,” Bullock said. “But White, well-educated college women are showing a tendency to be more Democratic than Republican. Well-educated suburban women are breaking away from their husbands, their boyfriends, their fathers.”
That specific suburban division is largely a result of one word: Trump. His election in 2016 shocked a previously apathetic voting bloc, and his demeanor and policies energized suburban women against him.
“Suburban women found each other,” said Tamara Stevens, an organizer for No Safe Seats, a Georgia women’s grassroots organization. “We really hadn’t talked politics in our book clubs or [local] tennis leagues or PTA, but we found ourselves with such strong emotions that we started speaking out. People started putting signs in yards, and we started realizing who our neighbors were, what their belief systems were.”
Midterm elections and crucial runoffs galvanized the suburban female Democratic vote, spurring well-organized and well-funded suburban activism. “We’re PTA moms,” Stevens said, laughing. “We’ve been trained for this.”
Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts cut into Republicans’ traditional strongholds. Trump won the state by 200,000 voters. Two years later in the state’s gubernatorial race, Stacy Abrams reduced that figure by three-quarters, losing to Republican nominee Brian Kemp by 55,000 votes, albeit in an off-year election.
But newly aware Georgians alone aren’t the only ones driving the leftward shift, Bullock notes. The state is also a draw for voters from colder northern climates or more expensive western ones, who aren’t universally Democratic, but nonetheless skew more leftward than the existing Georgia population.
Plus, there’s the factor of what might euphemistically be called “generational replacement,” or the inexorable effect of time on the electorate. “Older voters are the strongest Republicans,” Bullock said. “As they pass from the scene, their grandchildren tend to vote Democratic.”
Big money, big voting surges
All of the sliding and surging poll numbers have resulted in record-breaking spending levels — more than $150 million in ads either purchased or reserved for the state’s two U.S. Senate races, according to an October report by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The state has also attracted large sums of out-of-state cash. The AJC reported Monday that of the $27 million that Georgia’s Republican party has raised in the 2020 election cycle, $20 million has come from outside the state. The state’s Democratic party has raised about $8.5 million, with the largest contribution — $5 million — coming from Fair Fight PAC, a political action committee largely funded by out-of-state sources.
The result: the state has been blanketed with mailers and political ads trafficking in the usual innuendo and condemnation. Georgia has two Senate seats in play, and both are competitive if not exactly deadlocked. Some candidates tout their closeness with Trump as a badge of honor, while others look to tar their opponents with the same charge.
The money and ads have energized the Georgia electorate. As of Monday, more than half — 51.4 percent — of the state’s 7.6 million registered voters have already gone to the polls, or mailed in their ballots. Just over half of Georgia’s 159 counties have seen more than 50 percent of their eligible voters cast ballots already. That’s a 71 percent increase in total turnout over 2016, and a staggering 598 percent increase in mail-in voting.
Consequently, early morning voting trends in Georgia on Tuesday showed virtually no lines anywhere in the state. Fulton County, for instance, which comprises much of the city of Atlanta, has 255 polling locations, none of which had waits of more than 30 minutes as of mid-morning. It was a stark and, for voters, welcome shift from a June special election where lines stretched for long hours in the summer sun.
How long until Georgia reports results?
The question now becomes when Georgia will report its 2020 results. One significant change since 2016: over the summer, the State Election Board allowed county election officials to begin tabulating absentee ballots 15 days ago, with the hope that counties will be able to compile complete results shortly after polls close at 7 p.m. ET.
"We'll get voters their results, you know, as soon as we can that Tuesday night, or Wednesday morning," Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger told ABC News earlier in the week. "I think the sooner we can get results that are accurate out to everyone, I think that helps calm things down. And it really just gives people that sense of comfort that there is a safe, secure assessment process in place."
Regardless of how 2020’s ballots turn out, it’s clear Georgia is in the midst of a tectonic shift. How both parties respond to that will define politics, both presidential and local, for years to come.
“The new population and generational replacement trends are going to continue,” Bullock said. “If you were out buying stock in Georgia, you’d want to sell your Republican stock and buy Democratic.”
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo News. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him with tips and story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.