Does the rural white voter strategy make sense for Georgia Democrats in 2018?

Since the 2016 election, there has been a lot of talk about the rural white voters who used to vote for Democrats but were won over by Republicans in recent years. According to the narrative, Republican politicians, particularly those in the same tough-talking vein as Donald Trump, found how to connect with working class white voters in a way that eludes liberals and coastal elites. That narrative may very well be true. There were 206 counties that voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 and then for Trump in 2016. Those counties are whiter, poorer, and less educated (at least at the college level) than the country as a whole. There are five Obama-Obama-Trump counties in Georgia: Baker, Dooly, Peach, Quitman, and Twiggs.

The question now is who those voters are and whether they can make a difference in the Peach State in 2018. It looks there is at least one Georgia Democrat who might believe it. In a recent piece for the Washington Examiner, Salena Zito suggested that State Rep. Stacey Evans (D) could target rural white voters to win the 2018 gubernatorial campaign. Prodded along by former Gov. Roy Barnes (D)—a white Democrat who used a similar strategy to win statewide in 1998—Evans might appeal to low-income white voters who cast votes for Donald Trump and try to convince them that the Democratic Party can do more for them than the GOP.

Evans’ Democratic rival Stacey Abrams doesn’t buy it. She said this to the AJC after learning that Barnes was endorsing the Evans campaign.

There are two theories of this case. One is that we attempt to recreate a coalition that has not really existed since the late ‘90s. And the other is we build a coalition based on the Georgia we have today – a Georgia that is racially diverse, that is economically, uniformly interested in how we move forward….

Abrams has a point here. Democrats won nearly all of Georgia’s statewide races prior to 1992 with strong support from rural whites and urban blacks. But that did not last long into the 2000s, with the GOP eventually taking all of the statewide offices, both chambers of the General Assembly, and a majority of the congressional delegation. Since then, white Democrats have nearly become a thing of the past. One of the Democrats’ best showings was from Barack Obama, the country’s first black president, in 2008. He received 1.8 million votes, which was 47 percent of the state total (Sen. John McCain won the state with 52.2 percent). In contrast, the Democratic gubernatorial nominees in 2010 (Roy Barnes) and 2014 (Jason Carter) received 43 and 45 percent of the statewide vote, respectively. Both were white men running moderate campaigns aimed at swing voters. Both had excellent statewide name ID. Neither came close to winning. So what makes Evans different?

I don’t know the inner-workings of the Evans campaign. It could be that Zito and Abrams have it all wrong and that Evans, if she is so lucky to win the Democratic primary, plans to use a combination of anti-Trump fervor and the GOP’s impending doom in the north Atlanta suburbs to take down whatever nominee emerges from the Republican primary. But if she is pursuing the 1998 Barnes strategy, she will have to woo a coalition that hasn’t shown up for Democrats in nearly 20 years.

If you need convincing that the rural white coalition is not going to be an easy win for Evans, here are some numbers showing how Georgia’s electoral landscape has changed from Barnes in 1998 to Carter in 2014. Barnes defeated Guy Millner (R) in 1998 by a 52.5-44.1 margin. Nathan Deal (R) defeated Carter by a 52.3-44.9 margin in 2014.

  • Georgia added over 750,000 voters, going from 1.8 million in 1998 to 2.55 million in 2014. During this period, rural Georgia’s share of the vote decreased from 37.1 percent to 32.5 percent. It also went strongly to the Republicans.
  • In 1998, Democrats won 50.1 percent of the metro Atlanta vote and 55.7 percent of the rural Georgia vote. In 2014, they won 49.5 percent of the metro Atlanta vote and 35.4 percent of the rural Georgia vote.
  • In 1998, almost 40 percent of Democratic votes came from rural Georgia. In 2014, just 26 percent did.
  • Democrats won 118 counties in 1998, including 109 of the 133 in rural Georgia. In 2014, they won 34 counties, 22 of which were in rural Georgia. Only two of these 22 counties were less than 40 percent black.
  • Rural counties swung from the Democrats to the Republicans by an average of 44.7 percent between 1998 and 2014.
  • I haven’t even shown you Trump’s numbers yet.

Although I could be wrong, my hunch is that Democrats have not figured out how to win votes from white voters in rural Georgia, and it would be folly for them to base their 2018 strategy around it. Instead of trying to recreate the Barnes coalition from 1998, Democrats might fare better by trying to capitalize on recent inroads into Cobb and Gwinnett, both of which voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and the northern Atlanta suburbs that almost sent Jon Ossoff to Congress in 2017. With this area’s general discontent about President Trump (which may be amplified in the governor’s race if Brian Kemp or Michael Williams wins the GOP nomination) and expected backlash to Republican policies like campus carry, Democrats are likely to be in much friendlier territory than in the rural areas that abandoned them long ago.

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