Bookman: Velocity of Georgia’s swing from red toward blue is stunning

Columnist Jay Bookman says the time is nigh for Democrats to do better than finish elections close, pointing to dramatic swings in once-solid GOP territory north of Atlanta. Last year, Democrat Stacey Abrams came within 55,000 votes of defeating Republican Brian Kemp, both shown here at an October debate. John Bazemore-Pool/Getty Images

In deep-red Louisiana, the Democratic incumbent just won re-election as governor despite an all-out effort by President Trump to defeat him.

In deep-red Kentucky, a Democrat just beat the Republican incumbent for governor, again despite intervention by Trump.

In 2016, a Democrat was elected governor of North Carolina. Last year, Alabama elected a Democrat as U.S. senator.

You can argue that each of these results is an exception, based on local conditions and candidates, and you’d have a point. But eventually, exceptions that keep happening can no longer be considered exceptions.

That’s part of the reason why 10 Democratic candidates for president showed up for a debate this week in Atlanta. Like their Republican counterparts, Democratic Party officials see a real chance that Georgia’s 16 electoral votes will end up in their column next year, and if that’s realistic then it is also realistic to hope that Democrats can also be competitive in two U.S. Senate races here in Georgia, which will be crucial in deciding control of the Senate.

Wednesday’s debate was a promissory note of sorts, a down payment on what is to come next year. Georgia probably won’t play a role in selecting the Democratic nominee – by the time the state holds its presidential primary on March 24, more than half the states will have held their primaries or caucuses. But come the general election next November, it could loom large, and the reasoning is pretty obvious.

Look around you.

As recently as 2012, Mitt Romney swamped Barack Obama in staid, conservative Cobb County by 13.4 percentage points. Four years later, in 2016, Hillary Clinton carried that same county by 2 points. In the 2018 governor’s race, Stacey Abrams won it by 9.6 points.

That’s a 23-point swing, from Republican to Democrat, in a six-year time frame.

In neighboring Gwinnett County, Romney beat Obama by a healthy nine points. Four years later, Clinton carried the county by six points. In 2018, Abrams carried it by 14.3 points. That too is a 23-point swing in just six years.

The same phenomenon appears in counties where you might think Democratic support had topped out. In 2012, Obama carried Fulton County by 30 points, an impressive performance aided by strong support from black voters. Yet four years later, Clinton carried it by 40.5 points. Two years later, Abrams carried it by 45 points. Much of that growth came from suburban areas of north Fulton County once unfriendly to Democrats.

While the scale of such change is impressive, it’s the velocity that is most stunning. It’s rare – particularly in these partisan times, with political loyalties so hardened — to see such a massive transformation happen so quickly. Most importantly, there is no reason to believe that the demographic and political trends driving that change in the last six years have in any way played themselves out. Trump and his party remain strong in rural areas and smaller towns, but those regions of the state aren’t keeping pace with population growth in metro areas and in many cases are shrinking.

For years, Georgia Democrats have been Charlie Brown trying to kick that darn football, allowing themselves hope that this time, toe will finally meet leather and they will win a statewide race. In the Peanuts comic strip, Charlie Brown never got that pleasure.

Real life won’t be that cruel.

Jay Bookman
Jay Bookman covered Georgia and national politics for nearly 30 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, earning numerous national, regional and state journalism awards. He has been awarded the National Headliner Award and the Walker Stone Award for outstanding editorial writing, and is the only two-time winner of the Pulliam Fellowship granted by the Society of Professional Journalists. He is also the author of "Caught in the Current," published by St. Martin's Press.