On a recent morning, a canvasser from the Democratic Party strolled down this quaint little city’s downtown, chatting up people outside coffee shops and at a small farmer’s market, as honey hawkers and pepper farmers yawned in the rising heat.
The young woman with the clipboard was a peculiar sight, in some ways.
After all, Hillary Clinton’s road to the White House doesn’t run through Georgia, which has voted Democratic in a presidential election only once since 1980. So common wisdom would argue against putting campaign resources here.
But with Donald Trump so far struggling to engineer a ground game to complement his raucous rallies, the young woman represents an emerging and important wrinkle in the 2016 election: Democrats are going on offense, trying to pry several traditionally red states from the Republicans’ grasp.
Georgia polls show Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump essentially even.
On one hand, Georgia could suggest that a looming leftward shift in America’s electoral map is gathering pace quicker than expected.
But Trump himself is the biggest X factor, Democrats say. How he conducts his campaign will influence whether red states such as Georgia turn blue this year.
"What’s really interesting here is that the new floor for Secretary Clinton is much higher than what we had 4 years ago – but the new floor for Republicans is much lower than it was 4 years ago, primarily because of Georgia, and other states like Indiana and Arizona,” says Mitch Stewart, who served as the battleground states director for the Obama for America campaign, in an email.
“Some of this shift is due to demographic changes, but with these kinds of margins and changes in support, you have to believe a lot of that is coming from the candidate himself, Donald Trump,” he adds.
Cracks in the red base
For example, Clinton is losing white voters in Georgia by 37 percentage points, according to a recent Atlanta Journal Constitution poll. But those numbers are actually far stronger than either Barack Obama or John Kerry managed to muster.
Moreover, more than 6 of 10 Georgians who voted For Mitt Romney in 2012 are whites with college degrees – a demographic that supports Trump at lower rates than whites with less education. If Clinton can win 30 percent of the white vote, she could take the state, experts say.
The data journalism site FiveThirtyEight puts Clinton’s chances of winning Georgia at 50.6 percent.
“The big story is that Clinton is outperforming Obama among white voters and doing somewhat better than Obama among college-educated suburban voters, especially women,” says Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta.
This trend, which extends beyond Georgia, has opened up new possibilities in states such as Arizona, New Hampshire, and North Carolina, where Democrats are perhaps even better poised to make gains in statewide seats.
The Democrats’ campaign strategy is to put “the Trump campaign on its heels, leaning backwards rather than forwards,” says Marc Hetherington, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.
A new Georgia
Even if Georgia doesn’t go blue this cycle, the lightening of its red tinge could be significant.
The state is being recast by long-term demographic trends. It is one of the top states from in-migration from other states and countries. And whites have gone from 63 to 54 percent of the state’spopulation since the Florida recount in 2000.
“If one were thinking as a Democrat, the question would be: ‘Where can we go to prospect and open up new territories?’ The answer: Georgia,” says Charles Bullock, an expert on Southern politics at the University of Georgia, in Athens.
Democrats had predicted that demographic shifts wouldn’t bring statewide races into play until 2020 or 2022. Now, that timeline has potentially been accelerated – with Trump as the catalyst.
The prospect of Georgia beginning to turn purple has been “smoldering, and then Trump comes along and suddenly you’ve got a full conflagration,” says Professor Bullock.
As recently as 2014, that prospect looked a long way off. Michelle Nunn, the daughter of venerable Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn, and Jason Carter, President Jimmy Carter’s grandson, both got trounced in their respective campaigns for Senate and governor.
Yet the 2014 effort may have paid off in other ways.
Democrats started a new outreach effort that has, by some accounts, made gains by identifying many potential new Democrats. And already, most Georgians under age 44 vote Democratic, and that younger share of the population has only grown in the past two years, Bullock and others note.
“You look at the map and you think, ‘There’s no way in the world that the Democrats are going to do well that far South,’ ” says Professor Hetherington at Vanderbilt. But “you have demographic changes that are rapid, you have this white party just hanging on in a state that’s dynamic, and growing, and increasingly racially diverse. And of course in Atlanta you have a place that is socially and culturally quite liberal.”
The Republicans are hardly on the run yet. In many respects, state Republicans are in the best shape since 1924, controlling a majority of US state houses. And their redistricting efforts helped lock in Republican majorities.
But at the very least, even the possibility that a Democratic presidential candidate could win one or more Southern states means “Republicans need to get to work,” as South Carolina GOP chair Matt Moore told The State newspaper last week.