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A hint of blue? The 2016 presidential election in Georgia

Clinton at a campaign stop in Atlanta City Hall in February. REUTERS/Christopher Aluka Berry

A hint of blue? The 2016 presidential election in Georgia

Clinton at a campaign stop in Atlanta City Hall in February. REUTERS/Christopher Aluka Berry

Might Georgia turn blue in the presidential race?

Polling in Georgia has the race as statistical dead heat. The Real Clear Politics average has the race with Trump at 44.3 percent and Hillary Clinton at 42.7 percent – Trump ahead by 1.6 percent.

In response, the Clinton campaign has sent additional funds to hire more field organizers in Georgia. Georgia going blue in this presidential contest would not, itself, be a game-changer. Instead it would be an indication that Hillary Clinton will win the electoral vote in a landslide.

I am a professor of political science at the University of Georgia and director of the School of Public and International Affairs Survey Research Center, and one of my primary research areas is politics in the South. So, where do things stand politically in Georgia with about two months to go before the 2016 general election?

The ‘state’ of Georgia

The last time a Democratic presidential nominee won the state was in 1992. That contest was a close one, with Bill Clinton besting George Bush by only six-tenths of a percentage point. Since then, Georgia has trended heavily Republican. In 2002, Sonny Perdue became the first GOP governor in the state since Reconstruction. In that same election cycle, the Republicans took majority control of the state Senate and two years later the House.

A long line of supporters of Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump at Valdosta State University in Georgia. REUTERS/Philip Sears

Today, the Republicans have expanded these legislative majorities to almost two-thirds of the seats in both chambers. Currently, both of Georgia’s U.S. Senate seats are held by Republicans, as are 10 of the 14 U.S. House seats and all eight state constitutional offices. This trend from Democratic to Republican governance follows a similar pattern across states in South – one that has taken literally decades to play out.

So is there any real chance of Hillary Clinton turning the red tide and winning Georgia?

Recent Democratic presidential candidates have won other states in the region. Outside of perennial swing-state Florida, both Virginia and North Carolina voted for Barack Obama in 2008, and the Old Dominion repeated in 2012. There is some evidence that these victories may be attributable to a changing presidential electorate in these states, featuring higher levels of minority turnout and greater numbers of people moving into the region from outside the South. Some have forecasted that perhaps Georgia may be next to fall in line with this trend.

Many have also accurately noted the changing racial and ethnic composition of Georgia. The share of the non-Hispanic white population has been steadily dropping. For example, non-Hispanic whites comprised 70.1 percent of the population in 1990. Currently, this figure stands at 55 percent. These changes could affect the underlying structure of the political party system which, especially in the South, is largely based on race.

Changing tides?

Well more than a majority of non-Hispanic whites identify as, and vote, Republican. Just the opposite is true of racial or ethnic minority groups including blacks and Hispanics. In fact, an easy shorthand for black voting behavior in the South is that one can expect the African-American vote for the Democratic candidate to be at least 90 percent. Many times this figure is closer to 95 percent.

There are also a growing number of Hispanics in the state, from very few in 1990 to 9.1 percent of the total population today. As the state’s demographic profile shifts, those in the Democratic camp are hopeful that this will naturally increase Democratic voters. This may well happen in the future. However, demographic trends in the general population do not translate on a one-to-one basis in the electorate.

If one looks at what the composition of voters will look like in Georgia in 2016, it’s still primarily a black and white world. In 2012, non-Hispanic whites in Georgia comprised 61.4 percent of total voters, blacks 29.9 percent and Hispanics 1.3 percent.

In 2008, Georgia was viewed as a safe Republican state and, as a consequence, neither side put any resources into campaigning there. Somewhat surprisingly, Georgia was the seventh most competitive state in terms of victory margin in 2008 – 5.3 points. While there was an increase in black turnout in 2008, what most people don’t realize is that there was also a corresponding drop in white turnout in that same election cycle. So, these racial turnout patterns produced a much more competitive contest than had been predicted.

We might see a similar scenario emerge in 2016, although the exact mechanics might differ to some degree. In this case, disaffected conservatives may simply be unwilling to support Trump. They might stay home or show up to the polls, not cast a ballot for president and instead begin voting for offices below that level. I think either of these scenarios is quite plausible. Either way, these typical GOP voters would be absent from Trump’s vote total.

U.S. President Barack Obama waves to the crowd after speaking during a visit to Georgia Tech in Atlanta. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

On the other side of the equation, it remains to be seen whether black turnout will remain at 2008 and 2012 levels, now that President Obama is no longer on the ballot. Black turnout levels in the 2010 and 2014 midterms in Georgia were higher than the two preceding midterms in 2002 and 2006. This suggests the increase in black turnout witnessed in 2008 was not temporary.

Finally, could third-party candidates draw voters away from Trump and help propel Clinton to victory? Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson will be on the ballot and may draw a few additional votes from conservatives looking for another option. Third-party candidates, however, don’t typically perform well in Georgia. Despite the fact that Johnson is getting up to 10 percent in some polls, I think such a figure is highly inflated based on the performance of third-party candidates in past presidential contests in Georgia. On Election Day I would expect his vote share in Georgia to be in the 1 to 2 percent range, maximum.

The race in Georgia may be closer than one would have predicted a few months ago. If Clinton does eke out a victory, this is not necessarily an indication of a changed political complexion in Georgia, but rather depressed turnout among white conservatives and a black turnout rate at least comparable to 2012. On the other hand, the GOP still holds a decided advantage in the state. Barring anything completely unforeseen, which very well could be a possibility with Trump, the GOP nominee still holds an intrinsic edge in Georgia.