Georgia on her mind: Can Hillary take southern state?

Polls show Democrats' candidate putting Georgia in play for first time in 24 years

Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton is depicted as an angel, Republican candidate Donald Trump as a devil, with former vice-president Dick Cheney looking on, at a Halloween display in Georgia. Photograph: Erik S Lesser/EPA

Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton is depicted as an angel, Republican candidate Donald Trump as a devil, with former vice-president Dick Cheney looking on, at a Halloween display in Georgia. Photograph: Erik S Lesser/EPA

 

“Imagine a bowl of red raspberries,” says Tom Houck in a gravelly voice, followed by a laugh, “and in the middle you have a real blue blueberry.”

This is how the long-time civil rights activist, tour guide and former talk show host offers to help explain the political make-up of the state of Georgia and the city of Atlanta.

In the last few polls in the US presidential race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the Republican’s base of raspberries has lost some lusciousness to the Democrat’s ripening blueberry.

The Real Clear Politics average poll of polls puts Trump ahead of Clinton in traditionally ruby-red Republican state by just 2.8 percentage points. A Quinnipiac University survey published Thursday put the Democratic presidential nominee just one point behind Trump. A loss in Georgia would likely kill off any chance of the Republican candidate winning the White House.

“You got to believe in miracles,” said Houck who describes himself, with another husky laugh, as “a flaming liberal”.

The 69-year-old Cambridge, Massachusetts, native is aware more than most of how significant a Clinton victory would be in this southern state. Houck came to Atlanta in 1966 to work for Dr Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement and ended up as the King family driver.

“Coretta, his wife, asked me did I have my driver’s licence and I said, yes, and she said, ‘Would you mind taking the kids to school tomorrow morning?’ That’s how it happened,” he said.

Drawing a historic arc of where Georgia has come since those years, Houck goes back to Lyndon Johnson’s remark to his southern Democratic friends after he signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act that it would be a long time before southern Democrats will have power again.

The comeback here may not be that miraculous given how Trump’s support has waned under the weight of misogynist remarks and sexual misconduct allegations, potentially expanding the electoral map for Clinton to Republican strongholds such as Georgia where non-southern Democrats have struggled.

The state has voted only for Democrats just three times since Johnson: for Jimmy Carter, a home-state governor, in 1976 and 1980, and Bill Clinton, another southern governor, in 1992. Georgia was one of only five states to back segregationist George Wallace, the Alabama governor in the 1968 election.

Growth of minorities

In more recent times, Barack Obama lost Georgia by five points in 2008 and eight points in 2012, but the state has been undergoing significant demographic and electoral change. Most commentators saw the growth of minorities in the state making Georgia competitive in future presidential races, though few expected the Trumpian-induced acceleration of that change suggested by opinion polls in the state.

While the state has a growing Latino and Asian populations, the increase in the minority community is driven by black residents, unlike in other southern states such as Texas where Hispanics account for most of the growth. According to a study by the Center for American Progress, the American Enterprise Institute and demographer William Frey at the Brookings Institute, Georgia could become a “majority-minority state” by 2025 and that minorities could outnumber whites among eligible voters by 2036.

US Election: Clinton confident of victory

“As an overall share of the population, the African-American population has grown in the state. That’s because blacks come to Atlanta because it is a place where middle-class African-Americans can thrive,” said political scientist Andra Gillespie at Emory University in Atlanta.

“There is also some reverse migration. Families that moved north in the early part of the 20th century are now seeing their children and grandchildren move back to the south.”

Georgia has become a magnet for Indian and other Asian-Americans who move to the state for education to attend universities such as Georgia Tech and stay on to work in the tech industry or to start businesses. Atlanta is also popular with liberal young whites and millennials. All this has been pushing Atlanta and the city’s suburbs into Democratic territory. And then Trump came along.

“In a normal presidential election year, it wouldn’t have happened in this cycle,” said Gillespie of the possible shift from red to blue.

“The only reason that Georgia is competitive is because Donald Trump is extremely controversial and there is a legitimate national question about whether or not he is alienating his Republican base.”

If Georgia does vote Democratic, Gillespie expects it as part of a wave of other traditionally Republican states due to the polarised nature of Trump’s candidacy and it will be down to white college-educated women into suburbia and exurbia north of Atlanta.

All eyes on November 8th – election day – will be on Cobb County (which Obama lost by 12 points in 2012), Gwinnett County (which he lost by 9) and the northern part of Fulton County (Atlanta’s county) and whether the college-educated voters will be turned off by Trump enough to sit it out, suppressing the Republican turnout, or vote for Clinton.

“What people will be paying attention to is what soccer moms in that part of the region are going to be doing,” said Gillespie.

Conservative element

Gwinnett County has drawn particular focus because of its Asian population but Indians and south Asians tend to the most conservative element of the Asian vote. In addition, they, along with Latino voters, are not as politically active as white voters. A 2014 report by Asian Americans Advancing Justice found that Georgia had the fifth-fastest growth rate among Asian Americans in the country but only 42 per cent of Asian Americans in the state were registered to vote in 2012, a presidential election year.

“We have a Latino and Asian population that would be a game changer but they are not registered. In other words, the numbers are here for a Democratic victory but the voters aren’t,” said Houck.

Emory Morsberger, a former Republican state representative and a property developer in Gwinnett County, does not believe the Democratic hype about Georgia.

“Georgia is not a socialist state,” he said, dismissively. “It is a pretty solid capitalist, constitutional state so I don’t see any play at all there. I think most people are ready to go for Trump.”

Morsberger, who declined to say how he is voting, pins the speculation on political consultants cooking up a line for financial gain.

“I think it is coming from some hungry Democrats that are looking for consulting dollars to come in to finance last-ditch efforts in Georgia,’ he said.

Dave Fitzgerald, a registered (and rebellious) Republican who runs an advertising agency in the wealthy northern Atlanta suburb of Buckhead, has already voted for Clinton by absentee ballot.

“She may be the most qualified presidential candidate I will ever have voted for and I am 66 and I have voted in every election since I was 18,” he said.

Nose-holding

Unlike other Republicans, there is no nose-holding by Fitzgerald, a proud Irish-American. “I wear a button that says ‘Hillary’ and all my friends give me a hard time,” he said. Such outward displays are unusual in these parts where, he says, the only obvious signs of political-leanings is that the TVs in Buckhead’s upmarket bars and restaurants will be turned to Fox News.

“This is a strange election,” he said. “There are no bumper stickers, there are no yard signs and people are afraid to say who they are voting for. It is hard to get a feel for it.”

Fitzgerald recently hosted a gathering of the Irish American Democrats PAC, or political action committee, in Atlanta bringing together a group of wealthy Atlantans in support of Clinton.

“The tenor of the evening was: we are Republicans and we are voting for Hillary,” said the group’s Washington DC-based president Stella O’Leary.

That she is travelling to new parts of the country to campaign for Clinton is “mind-boggling”, she said.

“When I started the PAC in 1996, I would not even go into Virginia. It was a red state,” said O’Leary. “If somebody had told me back then that I was going to Atlanta to represent Hillary Clinton, you would have told me I was crazy. At this point it looks like anything is possible because of Trump.”