With much talk about Georgia potentially flipping to the Democratic Party in the Presidential and Senate elections, many people in the media have been laser-focused on the idea that the Atlanta suburbs are spearheading this shift in the normally Republican state. However, could another area of the state be a better place to look for how Georgia will vote in November? In 2016 and 2018, the Augusta-Aiken media market has come the closest to how Georgia voted as a whole. There’s good reason to believe that the market will be similar in 2020.
Why is the Focus on Atlanta?
Why do people in the media tend to focus on the changing Atlanta suburbs if Augusta is the bellwether? There are two theories as to why the Atlanta suburbs have been the focus of the shifting of Georgia politics. The first one is that Atlanta is the most populated region in the state. Atlanta and its surrounding counties make up roughly half of the state’s population and voters. This means that for every two votes cast in Georgia, it’s likely that one came from the Atlanta area. The other theory is that the suburbs surrounding Atlanta (particularly Gwinnett, Cobb, and Henry counties) flipped from reliably voting for Republican presidential candidates to voting for Hillary Clinton. This means that if Georgia flips, it will be because of the Atlanta suburbs alone.
A Flawed Bellwether
There is a problem with these theories, though. Atlanta and the surrounding area is already voting to the left of the state. In fact, they have been for the past few elections. So if a Democrat wants to win in Georgia, they would either have to grow their margins in this area of the state, or they need to shrink their margins in other parts of the state that also contain cities and suburbs.
Democrats have done a good job on the former. However, they are beginning to lost ground in other parts of the state. Democrats improved in the Atlanta area by six points between 2008 and 2016, but have slipped by seven points in the rest of Georgia. When looking at media markets, though, Democrats improved by three points in the Atlanta media market, home to two-thirds of Georgian voters, and dipped by seven points in all the other media markets combined. Democrats cannot just rely on just the Atlanta area to flip Georgia as a whole.
Another issue is that Republicans are making up for some of their losses in the rural areas of the state. This means that Democrats have to also be improving elsewhere in order to win. Stacey Abrams did just that in a race where she only lost by a point and a half.
Abrams was able to improve upon Clinton’s margin in every metro area in the state of Georgia. However, she lost ground in most rural areas and even lost two counties (Burke and Washington in eastern Georgia) that Clinton carried in 2016.
Kemp, for his part, did not lose any of the counties that Trump won in this election. He was able to take advantage of Abrams slipping in rural areas to pull out a win for Republicans in this hotly-contested election. However there is some good news for Democrats going forward. While the nation is more focused on a rural-urban-suburban divide, only 1/4th of Georgia’s voters resided in a county where Kemp outpaced Trump’s performance. This bodes well for Democrats in future elections as the areas trending to Democrats are more populated than the areas trending to Republicans.
What Does This Have to do With Media Markets?
Ossoff barely avoided a runoff in this primary due to his crushing margins in the Atlanta media market. His familiarity among Democratic voters in this district likely comes from the fact that he nearly flipped a congressional seat that resides completely in this media market. The media ads that he placed to win this seat were not just seen by those in the Atlanta area, but in places that were nowhere near the Congressional seat where this election will play out, but still resided in the Atlanta media market as a whole.
This made voters more familiar to him and likely helped him win over Columbus Mayor Theresa Tomlinson and 2018 Lt. Governor Nominee Sarah Riggs-Amico. Ossoff’s advantage in having ads placed in this media market a few years ago likely led to his victory, but also got me wondering if this media market actually votes similar to the state at large.
How Close to the State is Augusta-Aiken?
While different parts of Georgia are shifting in all different directions, the area in the state that comes closest to matching the state’s voting pattern is the Augusta-Aiken media market.
This media market is home to a little less than five percent of the state’s voters. However, it can honestly be considered a mini Georgia in its own right. It contains a large city (Augusta), suburbs (Columbia County), majority-black rural areas (Jefferson, Burke, Warren, and Taliaferro Counties), and majority-white rural areas (everywhere else). This media market even contains Burke County, one of the only two counties that flipped between 2016 and 2018. The voting pattern in this media market is roughly the same as the state of Georgia as a whole.
Clinton was able to win two media markets in Georgia while losing the state of Georgia at large. Many people want to focus on Atlanta and its media market because it contains two-thirds of voters. However, the Augusta-Aiken market was only one point off the state’s result as a whole. This suggests that the Augusta area might be more politically similar to the state at large.
Is it Consistent?
If you compare it to the Senate election, which saw significantly split ticketing due to Trump’s unpopularity in the suburbs, the Augusta-Aiken media market was still the closest to the state’s overall result and was only off by around two points overall.
Even when it comes to an election in a different year, 2018, Augusta-Aiken remained the market that produced a result that was most similar to the state at large. Once again, the Augusta-Aiken market was only one point off the state’s margin. Had Abrams pulled off a win in Georgia, she would likely have been within a point or even flipped the media market.
The media market of Augusta-Aiken was the closest in the state of Georgia in these three elections. This is despite only three of the counties actually moving to Abrams. The reason why this particular media market shifted most similarly to the state at large was that those three counties where Abrams improved over Clinton hold nearly 75% of the population. In the entire state, the percentage of the population lived in a county where Abrams outperformed Clinton was nearly identical.
Another point to note is that this media district is more prone to racial polarization in voting. Even that is beginning to go away in areas like Columbia and Richmond Counties, however. This has put the media market as a whole in play. Abrams only lost this media market by a little over two points. This could mean that if Biden were to flip Georgia, he might be winning not just Atlanta and Columbus, but also Augusta-Aiken.
Why is the Augusta media market is more similar to Georgia a whole? It comes down to the fact that its population distribution matches the state at large more than Atlanta’s. Both media markets had similar shifts in vote when in 2016 and 2018. However, what makes the Augusta-Aiken market a better predictor than Atlanta was that Republicans won the Augusta-Aiken market in both elections whereas Democrats won the Atlanta market in those two elections. This means that Augusta-Aiken is more representative of the state of Georgia at large than Atlanta. So when votes start coming in on election night in November, a place to look to get an early indication of how Georgia votes might just come from Augusta rather than Atlanta.