Every four years, after the midterm results are in, election watchers are typically cautioned against using the results as being predictive of the next presidential election. Since 2018, Democrats have not been strangers to such warnings. The party saw wins, sometimes big ones, in states where they are unlikely to be competitive in 2020. But many in the party and the media have gone too far the other direction, seeing the playing field as virtually the same as it was in 2016. Almost all analysts believe that the “tipping point” state will be either Wisconsin or Arizona, but this narrow view of the map is short sighted. There is one state that is flying under the radar as a potential tipping point state. It’s in the sunbelt, it’s blue trending, nearly saw a Dem breakthrough in 2018, and it’s not Texas. It’s Georgia.
Big Picture Trends
For starters, Georgia will be a closely contested state in 2020 no matter what. A look at the numbers give a clear indication why. Republicans in Georgia routinely get massive margins with rural whites. Such large margins in fact it is hard to see them having room to grow. Using the CNN exit poll of the 2018 Gubernatorial race, Kemp can be estimated to have won whites living outside of the state’s ten largest counties by a 92 to 8 margin. That does not leave a lot of room for growth. Compounding issues for Republicans is that rural Georgia simply cannot overpower the rest of the state and they actually need votes from more densely populated areas – and those areas in modern Georgia are full of college educated whites and a growing minority population, two groups the GOP has struggled mightily with post-Trump.
While the GOP does much better with non-college whites in Georgia than they do nationwide, they also do much better with educated whites. In essence, in a political alignment where regional differences begin to matter less, the GOP has much further to fall with college educated whites than they have to gain with working class whites. The simple a brutal reality is that statewide, there are virtually no areas where the GOP can realistically hope to improve its margins. In order to stay the majority party in the state, they would need to defy national trends in a truly herculean way. So far, they have not shown the ability to do this.
Why Midterms are Typically Poor Predictors
The conventional wisdom says that parties should not rely on midterm results to gauge their standing in the next presidential election. Historically, it is easy to see why this is true. Democrats were routed in 1994, only to see Bill Clinton win a comfortable victory in 1996. George Bush had an excellent 2002 midterm for an incumbent president, yet the 2004 election came down to only about 100,000 votes in Ohio. In 2010, Democrats were again decimated, yet Obama won a fairly decisively two years later against Mitt Romney.
There are two main reasons for this apparent disparity. First, the winning party in the midterms usually benefits from a turnout disparity that is not replicable in a presidential year. In 2010, for example, Republicans were highly motivated to vote, but the gap between GOP and Democratic enthusiasm could not be maintained in 2012. The second reason is candidates typically win the support of voters who would never cross over in a presidential race. This is how Joe Manchin can win despite Democrats not being competitive in West Virginia for nearly 20 years at the presidential level.
Why Georgia Bucks the Trend
However, despite the conventional wisdom about midterms, the reality is that the 2018 Gubernatorial race in Georgia is not an aberration. It provides a usable baseline for Democrats going into 2020. There are multiple reasons why the 2018 results in Georgia does not conform to the typical caveats about midterm results.
The first and most visible reason why this is the case is the top-line margins in Georgia since 2012. In the 2012 Presidential race, Mitt Romney won the state by 9%. Then in 2014, in a substantially more GOP friendly national environment, the margin in both the Gubernatorial and Senate races hovered around 7.5%. Then in 2016, Donald Trump won the state by 5%, before Brian Kemp pulled out a 1.4% win in 2018. The constantly shrinking GOP margin despite the political environment fluctuating substantially is the first and most obvious sign that the party is in real trouble.
Secondly, Stacy Abrams did not benefit from the typical advantages enjoyed by most midterm candidates. She did not come close to winning because she won voters who would never dare vote for a presidential candidate with a (D) next to their name. If she did, she would have seen substantial improvements in counties where Hillary Clinton did extremely poorly. But this is not the case. As can be seen from the map below, she barely improved over Hillary in these types of counties, and in fact did worse in the vast majority of rural counties. She improved over Clinton the most in urban and suburban counties. Of course, there is no guarantee Democrats keep these voters in their column in 2020. However, given the suburban trends that have been seen across the country, these voters staying with Democrats is certainly not out of the question.
The performance of Hillary Clinton vs. Stacy Abrams, by county.
Lastly, Abrams did not benefit from disproportionate turnout dynamics. A similar amount of votes were cast in 2016 (4.1 million), and 2018 (3.9 million). Additionally, turnout did not drop more in Trump won counties than it did in Hilary won ones. In 2016, counties Hillary Clinton carried made up 54.2% of the vote, in 2018, they made up 54.6% of the vote. The levels of turnout seen in 2018 are sustainable in 2020. In totality, the fact that nationally the environment was heavily Democratic does not seem to have had a noticeable impact on the state of Georgia.
How Democrats Can Get Over the Top in Georgia
Even if Stacy Abrams’ performance being replicable is good news for Democrats, they still need something that can push them over the finish line. Flipping even more voters in urban and suburban areas would help, but the party needs to first make sure that those who crossed over in 2018 remain in their camp. More likely, the party will benefit from Georgia’s rapidly expanding electorate. Since 2016, the state has added over one million new voters. Granted, it is typically a good idea to be skeptical of claims that newly registered voters or young voters aging into the electorate will give a party any significant boost in the next election. Usually when this analysis is peddled, it is from left-leaning individuals who are making the case for why the polls are underestimating their candidate. But this case may be different, if only because of the sheer number of new voters. There will likely be hundreds of thousands of new voters in 2020 that were not eligible in 2018, when the Gubernatorial race was decided by only 50,000 votes. According to CNN, Abrams won voters under 30 by 29%, and the under 18 population of Georgia is only 48% white compared to 59% for the adult population. Democrats would clearly be positioned to benefit heavily from an influx of new, young voters into the electorate.
As with everything in elections, nothing is certain, but the numbers do paint a fairly grim picture for the GOP going forward in Georgia. They are completely maxed out with rural whites. They have not shown an ability to stop the bleeding in cities and suburbs. Looking at the numbers, Stacy Abrams near win cannot be waved away with a dismissive “It was a D+8 year”. The GOP is in real trouble in 2020 in the Peach State, and they ignore that fact at their own peril.