When I pushed Georgia gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams a few weeks ago for information on what her campaign’s internal poll numbers were, she pushed back.
“The difference isn’t how closely we’re polling. It’s who turns out their voters,” she said.
That’s one of the biggest underlying questions facing Abrams as she dukes it out against Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp (R) in the state’s gubernatorial election.
Abrams and Kemp have been neck-and-neck in nearly every public poll of the race. Private polling from both parties have them just as close. And while the old saw “it all comes down to turnout” might predate the republic, in this hotly contested campaign it actually might be true.
Georgia’s minority population growth has been booming the last two decades. The state’s population is now just 53 percent non-Hispanic white, down nearly ten percentage points since 2000.
That leaves the big question: Will Abrams’ efforts to boost minority turnout actually work well enough to put her over the top?
Strategists from both parties say that if Georgia’s electorate ends up looking like it did during the 2014 midterms, she probably can’t win. But if she can get black turnout to Obama-like highs in terms of proportion of the overall vote, with the current larger population, she should pull off a victory.
That means if Georgia’s vote is 28 to 29 percent black, the low end of what campaign strategists are modeling, Abrams is in trouble. If it’s 32 to 33 percent black, she should win. A number in the middle: Outlook murky. Similar margins for the state’s small but fast-growing Hispanic and Asian-American populations could make big differences too.
If neither candidate wins an outright victory, they head to a December 4 runoff.
Abrams is hoping to capitalize on the state’s major demographic and cultural shift.
She has spent the last few years trying to expand the electorate by registering minority and young voters through her organization the New Georgia Project. Kemp, as my story today details, doesn’t seem as keen on expanding Georgia’s voting populace.
Abrams is also running as a true progressive, predicating her campaign on a huge turnout from minority and younger voters that scrambles what the old turnout model looks like.
That’s a different playbook than past Georgia Democrats, who’ve hugged the middle hoping they can win over enough GOP-leaning independents and trusting that black turnout would be enough to carry them across the finish line. That hasn’t worked statewide since 1998, the last time a Democrat won a gubernatorial or Senate race, and hasn’t worked for a Democrat in a tough district since Blue Dog Reps. John Barrow (D-GA) and Jim Marshall (D-GA) finally went down in conservative districts earlier this decade.
Conversely, Kemp ran hard to the right during the primary, and has done little to move back to the middle since.
Early signs are looking encouraging for Abrams: African American voters have requested early ballots already at almost double the rate they did in 2014. That’s a potential sign of a big enthusiasm jump — though it could partly be because of concerted efforts by Abrams’ campaign to boost early voting.
Both candidates are now making strong efforts to woo the state’s independent voters, especially white women in the Atlanta suburbs. But the campaign’s biggest question comes down to whether the electorate will look more like the new Georgia Abrams has dreamed of and worked for, or whether Georgia will continue to prove to be just out of reach for her and her party.