Georgia Democrats offer blueprint for other Sun Belt states

FILE - In this Jan. 6, 2021 file photo, workers at the Gwinnett County Georgia elections headquarters process absentee ballots for Georgia's Senate runoff election in Lawrenceville, Ga. (AP Photo/Ben Gray, File) (Ben Gray, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

ATLANTA – The Georgia Democratic Party has its answer for how the state delivered its electoral votes to Joe Biden for president in November and gave Democrats control of the U.S. Senate with runoff victories two months later.

The short answer: time, money and plenty of staff and volunteers using “tailored outreach” to make Georgia’s electorate younger, less white and more focused on absentee and early voting than it’s ever been.

In a new analysis of the 2020 cycle, state party officials cast the outcome essentially as Politics 101. Yet any details of Georgia Democrats' road map promise to attract interest given the state's shift from reliably Republican to the nation's hottest battleground. Georgia Democrats' focus on narrow demographic slices of the electorate could prove especially intriguing to party leaders in other Southern Sun Belt states including North Carolina, Florida and Texas.

“These victories weren’t random ... the result of some miracle,” Georgia Democratic chairwoman and U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams told party donors on a conference call Tuesday evening.

Williams described years of organizing and a deliberate timeline of ramping up staff ahead of 2020, insisting that Georgia’s growth alone didn't ensure record presidential and Senate vote totals for Democrats. Rather, she said, it was tapping into that changing population to maximize votes.

For example, the party began its push toward vote-by-mail in the spring, ahead of the primary.

In the fall, phone banks involved as many as 16 languages. The Voter Protection Hotline, on which citizens could ask questions about the voting process, was available in seven languages by September: English, Spanish, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Korean, Hindi and Urdu.

The party aimed events, most online because of the coronavirus pandemic, at specific demographic groups. The campaign spent at least $1.5 million on “in-language” advertising, including digital, radio and print, for the general election, plus another $2.5 million ahead of the Senate runoffs. Democrats matched surrogates to specific communities, and those targeted events, party officials said, were led by paid staffers who reflected the various races and ethnicities.

Scott Hogan, executive director of the state party, called it a “conscious decision” to build a staff that “reflected the state of Georgia,” rather than schedule targeted events and then have them led by staffers or volunteers who were mismatched to their audiences.

Biden would go on to edge President Donald Trump in November by about 12,000 votes out of 5 million cast, and Trump would falsely persist with claims that he lost because of fraud even after Georgia’s results were tallied three times. Two months later, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff won their Senate runoffs by margins outside the recount threshold.

A spike in absentee voting benefited Democrats. The party reported that Biden managed an 8 percentage point advantage over Trump in absentee support, compared with an essential draw between Trump and Hillary Clinton four years earlier.

Younger and nonwhite participation increased to Democrats’ advantage. The party’s analysis found turnout by 18- to 24-year-olds was 51% in 2020, compared with 46.4% in 2016. For 25- to 29-year-olds, turnout jumped from 42% to 46%. Black turnout in November topped 66%, compared with 61.5% in 2016. Asian American voters and Latino voters also increased their combined share of the electorate to 5.5% in November, up from 3.7% four years earlier.

Those numbers meant Democrats widened their advantage in metro areas, including suburbs closest to Atlanta. The party’s analysis did not detail the apparent shift toward Democrats by some white, college-educated voters in those metropolitan and suburban counties because of dissatisfaction with Trump.

Hogan, the party executive director, emphasized that personnel spending included the most ambitious “voter protection unit” the state party has assembled. He said Biden’s narrow margin likely wouldn’t have been possible without the program. Among other things, it included the hotline that fielded tens of thousands of calls, a website of voting information and a program that helped provisional-ballot voters correct any errors in time to have their ballots counted.

To be sure, Georgia Democrats’ success couldn't have come without money. They weren't starting from scratch after Stacey Abrams’ close loss in the 2018 governor’s race. They used monthly support from the Democratic National Committee, as well. Biden’s campaign steered additional resources. And the Senate runoffs, with control of Capitol Hill at stake, provided a flood of national cash.

That’s perhaps the biggest cautionary tale to Democrats in places like Florida or Texas. Florida’s Democratic Party, despite the state being a perpetual battleground, emerged from 2020 hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. Texas Democrats, despite a narrowing partisan gap in the state, have yet to be able to finance a true statewide field operation to register and regularly contact voters.

And in all three states, including Georgia, Republican-run legislatures have adopted new restrictions on voting rules, especially absentee voting, that Democrats used to their advantage in 2020.

But Williams and Hogan said their 2020 effort still provides a “blueprint” for anywhere. “It’s not that we came up with a miraculous, neat idea,” Hogan said. “It’s that we committed to it and never stopped.”

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