The initial “hot take” on Democrat Joe Biden’s victory on Nov. 3 emphasized the critical importance of traditionally Republican suburban white voters who crossed over to support Biden out of revulsion with President Donald Trump while remaining loyal to GOP candidates farther down the ticket. Subsequent examination suggests that this narrative hardly squared with actual voting patterns in the critical battleground state of Georgia, however.
It is true that, along with Fulton, the state’s three most populous suburban counties— Dekalb, Cobb and Gwinnett—accounted for over half of Biden’s vote gains over Hillary Clinton four years ago, but it is also true that Cobb, by the margin of but a single point, is the only one of the trio where minorities are not in the majority. Beyond that, Republicans also failed to hold the line in local races in those counties, which saw both Cobb and Gwinnett elect their first Black sheriffs. The same patterns in voting and turnout seemed to hold in the state’s Senate runoff races.
On the other hand, while the emerging counter-narrative holding that, like President Biden, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff owe their wins to Black voters is truer to the facts, it undervalues the significance of the share of the white vote claimed by the Democrats in both the presidential and senatorial races.
Republican strategists who opted to go-all in with Trumpism in the Georgia senatorial runoffs did not anticipate the contradictory appeals that would soon be emanating from various quarters in the GOP camp, leaving voters to choose between “turn out big to preserve president Trump’s legacy” and “this election will be rigged just like the other one, so don’t bother.” Suffice it to say, neither the farcical attempt by Trump and his kamikaze henchmen to discredit the Nov. 3 results nor his brazen try at coercing Georgia election officials into helping him steal the state did much to cement his legacy as something to be preserved. Meanwhile, calls to boycott the balloting in the Senate runoffs, because the fix was already in, resonated with enough Trump diehards, particularly in counties where they were most concentrated, to put Republican candidates Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue at a definite disadvantage.
At the same time, minority voters defied the traditional wisdom by turning out in proportions unheard of for runoff elections. In fact, at 90% of the general election total, the overall turnout in the runoff races was actually much higher than historical precedent would have suggested. But, where Republican voting was down roughly 10% in both races, the slippage for the Democrats ranged from roughly 5% for Ossoff to 3% for Warnock.
Altogether, Blacks accounted for roughly 32% of the electorate in the runoffs, as compared to 29% in the general election. The already suspect narrative that ticket splitting by better-educated suburban whites was the key to Biden’s success on Nov. 3 was even shakier after the runoffs, as both Democratic candidates ran slightly behind him with this demographic on Jan. 5. At the same time, both ran ahead of him among Black voters in Georgia’s most heavily Black counties, who actually showed up in greater numbers than in the general election.
What we can discern thus far about voter behavior in the Georgia Senate runoff elections makes it clear that the main constant in both the presidential and senatorial races was the overwhelming turnout and corresponding Democratic loyalty at the ballot box among minority voters. The Democrats would have stood little chance of winning any of these contests without this show of fidelity, to be sure. Yet simply concluding that they owe their victories here—and elsewhere, perhaps—solely to energized minority voters, rather than any real change in white voting patterns, does not do full justice to the complexity or potential significance of what enabled the Democratic Party to win these elections.
Since the civil-rights initiatives of the mid-1960s led Southern whites to flee the Democratic ranks in droves, the principal difficulty for Democrats in the region has been the success of their Republican adversaries in painting them as a party made up overwhelmingly of, by and for minorities. Accordingly, they have long struggled in vain to win back an elusive, perhaps even mythical, contingent of working-class whites who are more attuned to economic than racial concerns. Finally, urged on in 2020 by Stacey Abrams and other minority leaders, Georgia Democrats redirected their energies and resources to an all-out, unvarnished effort to register and turn out their historically loyal nonwhite base.
The success of this minority mobilization initiative by Abrams and her cohort was clearly the most significant contribution to the party’s improved fortunes in this state, but the ultimate promise of their accomplishment might still have gone unrealized had they not managed to pull it off without simultaneously losing ground with white voters. In both 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama picked up 20–23% of the white vote in Georgia, almost the same share as John Kerry in 2014 and slightly more than Hillary Clinton in 2016. In her 2018 gubernatorial bid to become Georgia’s first black (and female) governor, Abrams nudged the Democratic share of the white vote up to 25%. This year, Biden, Ossoff and Warnock all upped that share to roughly 30%. These are hardly astronomical figures, but neither were the victory margins of any of the Democratic candidates.
With demographic trends likely to remain favorable to her prospects, Abrams seems well-positioned to secure the Georgia governorship in 2022. The long- or even medium-term damage to Republican fortunes in state and national politics incurred in these last tragic days of the Trump presidency is impossible to gauge at this juncture. Still, it’s fair to speculate that Abrams will still need to at least hold on, in large part, to her party’s admittedly modest, slow-to-come-by gains with white voters to succeed two years from now where she fell just short two years ago. If she actually managed to build on those gains, the import of what we have witnessed over the last two months will be even greater than we can appreciate just now.
Jim Cobb is Emeritus Spalding Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Georgia. An earlier version of this offering appeared at likethedew.com.
Like what you just read? Support Flagpole by making a donation today. Every dollar you give helps fund our ongoing mission to provide Athens with quality, independent journalism.