Georgia Voters Are Practical Conservatives

At first glance, Georgia seems like a pretty hard-core Republican state. It hasn’t voted for a Democrat in a presidential contest since 1992, (and 1980 before then.) Every statewide office is held by a Republican. 10 of our 14 congressional districts are Republican, and eight of them have a partisan rating of R+14 or higher. Conventional wisdom assumes that on issues from gun control to abortion to gay marriage, Georgia voters come down on the most conservative side of every issue, and as political shorthand goes it’s not completely wrong.

But it is at least a little wrong, if a recent and extensive poll by the AJC is to be believed, to try to stereotype Georgia voters as unbending. On the contrary, they’ve shown themselves to be far more open minded than the blue-nosed reactionaries they’ve often been pigeonholed as.

For instance, when asked if Georgia should legalize marijuana for any use, only 46% of respondents said yes. (That’s not a majority, but it is roughly the same percentage of the statewide vote earned by the strongest Democratic candidates.) But when asked if Georgia’s existing medical marijuana laws “should be expanded to allow the harvesting and distribution of medical marijuana with strict controls within the state,” a whopping 71% of Georgians agreed.

It’s a similar story on other issues. School choice gets 61% support –and that support goes up to 69% even if ‘choice’ means government vouchers to private schools. Casino gambling is supported by 56% of voters –that’s right, a majority of the voters who supposedly took a tee-totaling Baptist’s stance on the Sunday sales of alcohol now support casino gambling, right here in River City.

Medicaid expansion would be extremely expensive, and is more a fiscal issue than a social one, which is why the green eyeshade Republicans have resisted it and why Governor Deal urged caution with regard to any sweeping healthcare reforms in his state of the State speech. But 75% of Georgians think Medicaid should be expanded for the poor, even as 72% think all or part of Obamacare should be repealed.

That shouldn’t cause any cognitive dissonance –Georgians understand that they weren’t allowed to keep their plan even if they wanted to, and that their insurance costs have not decreased by $2,400. Obamacare didn’t work as promised and they want it gone. But that doesn’t mean they want poor folks to die in the street.

While the AJC poll indicates an electorate in Georgia that is flexible, practical and more open to new ways of thinking than someone who puts Georgians into a “barefoot hillbillies” box, polls are one thing –actual elections are another. The same voters that told the pollsters they support expanding school choice by nearly 7 out of 10 in theory just voted down the Opportunity School District by nearly 6 out of 10 in reality.

In hindsight, the failure of the OSD amendment was more about the persuasiveness of the anti-OSD campaign than a stubborn acceptance of failing schools. (And the pro-OSD campaign put a lot of faith in the wording of the ballot question.) At the same time they were defeating the Opportunity School District, Georgia voters were approving taxes on adult entertainment to help victims of sex trafficking, dedicating taxes on fireworks to pay for trauma care and burn victims, and dissolving and recreating the Judicial Qualifications Commission. Agree or disagree, Georgia voters are not afraid of change, or taxes or shaking things up.

The 2016 election results and the recent AJC poll show an electorate in Georgia that’s more thoughtful and flexible and concerned about its neighbors than the conventional political shorthand indicates. And delivering flexible, practical solutions in 2017 will bring real rewards in 2018.

For Georgians, and those who want to lead them.

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