In the 2020 election cycle, Democrats’ decades-long dream of winning Georgia finally became a reality. The state voted for a Democrat, Joe Biden, in the presidential race for the first time since 1992, and it elected two Democrats to the U.S. Senate.
Looking back, it’s hard to pinpoint what turned Georgia blue. Was it antipathy toward then-President Donald Trump? After all, anti-Trump sentiment among Democrats was particularly high in 2018 and 2020. Then again, the wheels for a Democratic takeover were already set in motion when the party’s gubernatorial nominee, Stacey Abrams, pioneered a new playbook focused on Black voters in 2018, something that nearly won her the governorship that year and motivated more Georgians to vote blue in 2020 and 2021.
In fact, a lot of what happened in 2020 can be credited to Black voters. In the prior two decades, Georgia slowly tilted toward Democrats, in large part because of an influx of Black Americans moving back to the South since the 1970s, a reversal of the Great Migration that started in the 1910s. This trend has been particularly pronounced in Georgia. More than any other state, it has seen the biggest increase in its share of Black1 Americans 18 years or older.
In other words, new Black voters in the state — and their participation in recent elections — have helped the Peach State make history, and a continuation of that trend could significantly shift the balance of power toward Democrats in competitive statewide races there this year.
“Not only do you have a higher percentage of Black people coming in, but they are geographically dispersed. And they’re largely voting for Democrats. So, from a political perspective, the map is changing every day. I wouldn’t necessarily call Georgia a blue state, but it certainly is purple, and it can go blue during any given election,” said Andre Perry, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
According to FiveThirtyEight’s 2022 election forecast,2 the Senate race is a toss-up, while the governor’s race is more squarely in Republican Gov. Brian Kemp’s column. Still, though, in a state that has changed so much in the past 20-odd years, a lot may come down to how many — and if — Black voting-age Georgians cast their ballots.
Notably, both parties have made an intentional effort to reach Black voters this year. Abrams’s campaign, for instance, has hosted conversations called “Stacey and the Fellas” to engage Black men in the state. And in an August campaign event, she bluntly explained why: “If Black men vote for me, I’ll win Georgia.” But Spencer Crew, a professor of history at George Mason University, told us it’s clear that Republicans are also trying to appeal to Black voters. For example, prominent Republicans’ decision to back former NFL star Herschel Walker, a Black man, to challenge Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, also a Black man, is “a recognition from the party that Black voters are important and that they’re trying to figure out ways to tap into that electorate.” It’s possible there will be an opening for Republicans, too, as Black voters have soured on Biden and a renowned celebrity like Walker could be serious competition.
But either party’s success will likely hinge on how they perform in Georgia’s capital city, Atlanta.
Case in point: In 2020, the counties in Atlanta’s metro areas3 that saw the biggest increases in the number of Black Americans casting their ballots also saw some of the strongest shifts toward Biden and were key to helping him win. About 32 percent — or over 136,000 — more Black voters showed up in 2020 than in 2016, when Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton was on the ballot.
These shifts have been a long time coming. Since 2000, the growth in Atlanta’s Black voting-age population has been close to four times as fast as the growth of its white4 voting-age population. Moreover, the city’s surrounding metro area has been a center of Black voting-age population growth in the U.S., with close to 700,000 more Black Americans 18 years old or over calling the Atlanta area home since 2000. Put another way, this 6-percentage-point increase in the area’s Black voting-age population has been a pivotal factor in its politics.
“For the Black community, Atlanta is clearly an attractive place in the South to go live. And clearly that’s impacting the political environment in and around the city as well and the surrounding suburbs,” Crew said. The election of two Democratic senators following a very close race for governor “shows that the state’s demographics are changing and the organizing of Black voters is shifting the balance of power.”
Cobb and Gwinnett counties, the Atlanta area’s most-populated urban counties5 after Fulton, have grown by over 200,000 Black Americans of voting age in 20 years. In 2000, the two counties were heavily Republican and had an average vote-share margin of R+27 in that presidential election. But by 2020, the average vote share had swung 16 points toward Democrats.
To be sure, it wasn’t until Trump ran for president in 2016 that Cobb, Gwinnett and Henry, one of Atlanta’s largest suburbs, flipped blue, even though the Black electorate had already been changing. And some counties, like Fulton, haven’t seen sharp increases in Black voters but have still moved to the left.
It’s true that racial demographics alone cannot tell us everything about Georgia’s political landscape. Educational attainment has also been a driving factor. It all comes down to whether these factors are reflected in who turns out. We can see this in the suburbs, which were simply vital for Biden in 2020, when he won Georgia by close to 12,000 votes. As the chart below shows, Democrats’ biggest suburban gains in vote margin from 2016 happened in counties where Black voters turned out in high numbers, underscoring the importance of Black suburban voters.
The reversal of the Great Migration in recent decades has been propelled largely by young, college-educated Black Americans, whose votes were key to Biden’s winning Atlanta, which was in turn important to his success in the state overall: 60 percent of Georgia’s electorate came from the capital city’s metro area.
“Those middle-income Black people who truly fit the profile of the ‘suburban mom or dad’ like to see leaders who look like them,” said Perry, of Brookings. “So they’re electing Black people in the counties and municipalities they’re moving into. So there is also a power shift that’s going on at the local level that can bubble up to affect statewide races.”
There’s no question, then, that Black voters have transformed Georgia’s electorate and put it at the forefront of southern Black political might. This is especially true in the state’s suburbs, which have gotten really competitive. Most suburbs in Atlanta have shifted toward Democrats by 31 points or so in 20 years and have gained, on average, more than 315,000 voting-age Black Americans, far outpacing the growth of the white voting-age population by 200,000.
“White voters are leaving the suburbs, and Black Americans are moving into the state’s cities and suburbs,” said William Frey, a demographer and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “And you’re seeing that big time in Atlanta, which is essentially a prototype of what the Black population can do in terms of changing not only the demography but also the political demography of different parts of the state.”
Frey told FiveThirtyEight that the white population has declined since 2016, especially in the Atlanta metropolitan area. Henry County, for example, lost nearly 13,500 white people while gaining more than 30,000 Black people between 2016 and 2021. “There are several counties that have had absolute declines of their white population and gains of [their] Black one, like Gwinnett and Cobb counties,” he said. This, according to Frey, suggests a significant share of the state’s white voters are moving out of the suburbs and urban areas and into more rural parts of the state.
Keneshia Grant, a professor of political science at Howard University, went one step further describing what may happen if the rate of Black people moving into Atlanta remains high, saying there could be “a tipping point at which the number of people living in these metropolitan areas or metropolitan-adjacent areas will be high enough to overcome the rural areas.”
Consider what happened in Georgia in the last presidential and Senate elections, particularly Warnock’s defeat of Republican Kelly Loeffler in the Senate runoffs. His win was due, in part, to almost every single suburb in the state shifting further to the left from the November 2020 presidential election, with nearly 92 percent of November’s Black voters turning out again in January 2021 for the runoffs, but Warnock also benefited from more Republican-heavy parts of the state not turning out to vote. Both he and Jon Ossoff, the other Democrat who won in the Senate runoffs, improved on Biden’s margins, especially in counties with the largest share of Black voters.
Per the FiveThirtyEight forecast, most U.S. House races in the Peach State aren’t that competitive this year. But, once again, the suburbs are likely to be important for both parties as they fight for control of the U.S. Senate.
According to Perry, there’s a good chance that having multiple Black candidates on the ticket will energize voters in ways they weren’t previously. Abrams’s close election in 2018, he added, also might encourage Black Democrats to go out and vote, even in a midterm year. Nationally, turnout among Black voters is typically lower than that of voters overall in both midterm and general elections. But it’s possible Georgia may see higher turnout this year, as the state saw an uptick in early voting in the May primaries. That said, it’s still too early to know how the restrictive voting law Georgia recently passed will affect turnout in November.
But don’t miss the forest for the trees. That higher early-voting turnout in the Georgia primaries was among both Democrats and Republicans. At this point, it doesn’t seem as if Republicans have made inroads with Black voters in the state, as a Sept. 8-12 poll from Quinnipiac University found that Black likely voters overwhelmingly support Abrams (91 percent) and Warnock (92 percent) over their GOP opponents. But the overall toplines show just how competitive these statewide races are: The gubernatorial race showed Abrams behind Kemp by just 2 points, while the Senate matchup had Warnock leading Walker 52 percent to 46 percent.
In other words, greater turnout among Black voters won’t guarantee Democratic victories up and down the ballot, as a lot of other factors are at play in Georgia. But as Perry told FiveThirtyEight, recent Democratic victories in the state have also energized Black voters. “Once you start getting a few people elected and get some statewide wins under your belt, then you start believing that you belong and that those seats are yours,” Perry said. “There is a palpable empowerment that Black people are feeling in Georgia like they’ve never felt before.”