By Kamille D. Whittaker | kwhittaker@atlantatribune.com

What are the chances of Georgia turning “Blue” in the next election cycle? Dr. William Boone, professor of political science at Clark Atlanta University and political strategist Howard Franklin, wax political on the state of the electorate, past, present and future.

Much of what we can predict about the next couple of decades of Southern politics already has its roots in what W.E.B. Du Bois addressed so thoroughly in his text, “Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880.” The story of Reconstruction is also the story of the rise of the modern American state — and its respective political and economic consolidations for certain segments of society. If the black “worker,” as Du Bois termed them, was so pivotal in forming the roots of the political landscape of the South — what is the connection between then and now? 

Dr. William Boone: That is a very good starting point in terms of trying to contextualize what is happening contemporarily. The idea that African Americans have made progress in the country since Du Bois wrote that book is a flurry of fits and starts. By that, I mean there have been some tangible gains, but you have to hold in mind that there is always a tension between what it is African Americans are striving for politically, economically and even socially, and what they are pushing up against in terms of what is acceptable to those who control the levers of power in this country. What African Americans are really striving for, in a sense, alters power relationships and that is what is difficult for people to deal with in terms of trying to cede and share power. Certainly things are changing. One can point to very specific things on the political front like the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That Act, of course, was instrumental in helping to organize and mobilize black voters and also helped to increase the number of black elected officials and even some appointed officials. So successful has it been that even at its initiation, you have a great deal of pushback from southern states in particular but across the country as well. So, from 1965 to 2013, with the Shelby County, Alabama vs. Holder decision, the Voting Rights Act has been under attack because it expanded black political and electoral participation. [In that decision] the court legitimized what some southern states have argued for a number of years, at least the last 30 years: That things have changed and they are no longer villains in this whole question about registration and voting and black folk are free to vote unfettered. Similar to Reconstruction of 1877, [progress] ended, right when there was a perceived change in the political dynamics of the country. Prior to that, blacks were attempting to integrate themselves into the political system and they had marginal success, but that success was abruptly halted in 1877. So, we do see some similarities.

Let’s turn to the present day. The trend toward an increasingly non-white electorate in Georgia is driven by African Americans who are eligible at higher rates than Latino Americans, vote at higher rates than Latino Americans and tend to be more solidly Democratic as well. This is in contrast to another red state in consideration such as Texas. The amount of eligible non-white voters is expected to uptick at 1 percent intervals throughout the next several election cycles — through 2032. Data suggests that the non-white eligible voter population here in Georgia is already largely politicized which suggests little room to grow, which essentially makes the white eligible voter population more of the “swing” variable. Have the effects of the demographic changes that have taken place here in Georgia and the South broadly been overstated?

Howard Franklin: Georgia’s demographic changes haven’t been overstated so much as the pundit class and anxious Democrats have been too eager to translate those variables into signals of impending victory. Demographers have long promised a younger, browner, and more urbanized electorate. Progressives can’t take credit for these changes, but we should be proactive about harnessing the potential impacts for our party. That means focusing now on what we can — like recruiting stronger candidates and running smarter campaigns that position us to ride the wave when it does finally break.

Boone: I think there is empirical data to indicate that indeed Georgia, similar to the rest of the country, especially some southern and southeastern states, is changing demographically. So much so that you’re getting some pushback in terms of legislation and in terms of the ways things are being organized. Particularly for Georgia, the Democratic Party held sway in Georgia up until about 12 years ago when you had the first election of a Republican governor in close to 150 years and since that time it’s been Republican governors and legislatures, and now the state is Republican controlled. It’s important to note that even when it was controlled by the Democratic Party, it was a conservative element of the Democratic Party that ran the state; not like the national Democratic Party that you assume is “liberal.” Still, the Latino population and vote, although growing, is still not as significant in terms of elections as the black vote. And one more caveat is that it’s not only the black vote, it’s the black women’s vote that is carrying the day. Black women are registered in higher numbers than black males, black female turnout is at a higher rate than black males. In terms of percentages, black female turnout is at a rate that is equal to or in some cases exceeding even white males. That element within the black voter pool is the element that is very significant, if you’re going to talk about what’s going to happen to the state. So the question is, who will those in power begin to cater to in attempts to maintain their power?

If we look at the 2014 mid-term elections, while many Democrats were disappointed with the outcome, it can be looked at as a continuation of partisanship trends of the last two decades. Is there anything to indicate that partisanship trends will break from their current trajectory?

Franklin: Shifting demographics offered little evidence or encouragement that Georgia would see a “blue crush” as early as 2014. Instead, pundits and pollsters almost singlehandedly convinced us to brace for a photo finish on Election Day. The leaders atop the Democratic ticket rightfully predicted that fresh, exciting candidates boasting of outsider cred could win over voters that were dissatisfied with government. That proved true for republican David Perdue in the U.S. Senate primary runoff and general elections, but it was the power of incumbency and a center-right approach to governance that kept Nathan Deal in the governor’s mansion. In whatever year Georgia goes blue — and it will, someday soon — Democrats will need rely on both legs of that stool and at least one or two others.

What are the specific machinations necessary for Georgia to become a blue state? A swing state?

Boone: When you look at the last election you’ll see that [Michelle] Nunn and [Jason] Carter both represented a rebirth, of sorts, of the Democratic Party in Georgia. But if you look at the data you’ll see that they received their votes where you expected they’d receive them: Right here in Atlanta — where there’s a concentration of blacks and Latinos, but not enough to move forward. But it did give Democrats something to organize around. I think a telling point for me was when you had five black women running for state office — which was touted as a historic first — but none of the “Georgia Five” won. The reality was that the state Democratic Party did not support them. The state superintendent race didn’t win even with the support of a former state superintendent. Those women indeed received the black vote, but they could not move beyond the black vote in a significant way. So, I don’t think Georgia will be blue anytime soon, I think it will be pink, a less intense red if anything, and that is because of the redistricting that’s taking place and the attempts by the state to redistrict in a way that maintains Republican strength, at least through the next census.

Franklin: Progressives’ best chances of winning statewide will be realized after we get more competitive in metro collar counties. Gwinnett already has a majority-minority school district, and Cobb isn’t far behind. The best way to take advantage of demographic trends statewide is to prove that you can succeed at the local level. Demographics alone have not and will not be enough to turn Georgia blue — or even purple. Progressives have to run better campaigns, more consistently. That’s somewhat of a chicken and egg conundrum, since electoral victories are what entice good candidates and talented operatives to take chances pursuing tough races. Unlike Florida, Ohio, or other perennially competitive states, Georgia doesn’t have a continuous procession of hotly contested, well-funded federal and state elections. Democratic leaders are, right now, struggling to find a candidate for the 2016 Senate race, and in the absence of that kind of investment, we need to find other ways to help candidates broaden their prospects for higher office while helping political operatives hone new skills and strategies. AT

Originally published in Atlanta Tribune’s November 2015 issue.

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