Could Abrams ride Georgia’s record midterm early-vote surge to outperform the polls?

By: and - October 21, 2022 1:00 am

Democrat Stacey Abrams and Gov. Brian Kemp shake hands after Monday’s Atlanta Press Club Loudermilk-Young Debate Series in Atlanta. Early voting also started Monday for the Nov. 8 election. AP Photo/Ben Gray

This story was updated at 2:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 21, 2022, to correct the in-person early voter turnout total. 

Turnout in the first three days of in-person early voting approached presidential election level, with Black voters – who have become the recent focus in the race for governor – especially turning out in force. 

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp has met with Black voters at a series of recent events, including a town hall with Black businessmen in affluent Buckhead. 

And supporters of Democrat Stacey Abrams have worked to shore up support with Black men, who are part of a key demographic for Democrats. A group of Black leaders led by House Minority Leader James Beverly rallied on the eve of early voting at Clark Atlanta University.

House Minority Leader James Beverly, a Macon Democrat, speaks at Clark Atlanta University on the eve of early voting. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

“Why are we here today? We are here because we’ve heard so many Black men ask the question, ‘Why should I vote?’” the Macon Democrat said.

Congressman Hank Johnson candidly challenged Black men to put aside any discomfort they may have with supporting a woman. 

He said Abrams reminds him of Harriet Tubman, the pistol-toting heroine who risked her own safety to lead slaves to freedom long ago. If elected, Abrams would make her own history as the country’s first Black female governor.  

“I know that there are some of us, particularly Black males, who for whatever reason have a hard time getting behind a female,” said Johnson, a Lithonia Democrat.

“Just because you think some women know more than you know, they are very intelligent and forceful in their delivery – if you feel threatened, we’ve got to rise above that and vote for Harriet Tubman,” he said to applause. “Vote for Rosa Parks. Vote for your own mother. So, let’s put things aside.”

What can be read into the early turnout numbers?

This is only the first of three weeks of early voting in Georgia, which means there is a lot of voting left in the Nov. 8 general election. But already, there has been record turnout for a midterm election. 

After three days of voting, the number of in-person votes tallied – nearly 400,000 – was only 15,000 votes shy of the in-person vote count at the same point in the presidential election in 2020. These numbers do not include absentee ballots, which surged during the pandemic. 

Black voters represented 34% of early voters in the first three days even as they make up about 29.5% of the overall electorate. A gender breakdown of those voters was not available.

It is true that Black men do tend to be less Democratic leaning than Black women, says Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University. But they are still considered the second most loyal Democratic voting bloc in America, she said.

So, the high Black voter turnout so far bodes well for Democrats, especially if it continues at the current rate, Gillespie said.

Voters line up inside the Smyrna Community Center for the first day of early voting Oct. 17. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

But the early voting numbers also suggest the state’s newfound battleground status may have motivated more Georgia voters to play a part in deciding increasingly competitive races, Gillespie said. 

“In an era of stark, partisan polarization, people have very clear, very strong preferences, and they’re doing so in a context of closer margins where they believe – and there’s a lot of evidence to confirm – that every vote counts,” Gillespie said. “And so, I think that explains why we’re seeing such robust turnout levels.”

Four years ago, Abrams won about 93% of the Black vote, according to exit polls. But recent polls show her with support in the mid-80% range, although some pollsters say they expect Black support to coalesce around her. But in a tight race, any dip would be enough to make a difference.

State Rep. El-Mahdi Holly, a Stockbridge Democrat, led a recent show of support among Black men at the state Capitol and dismissed talk of fading support among Black men for Abrams. Holly said he wanted the rally to show that “Black men still stand strong alongside Black women and certainly in support of Stacey Abrams.”

“The same way that we were praying and we were watching intently to support Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s installation to the Supreme Court, we are looking forward to seeing Stacey Abrams in the governor’s mansion,” Holly said. 

A laser focus on early voting

Abrams has publicly shrugged off the poll results that show her trailing Kemp by as much as 10 points, calling it a snapshot that fails to accurately represent the state’s changing electorate.

Her campaign has aggressively pushed supporters to vote early – partly to avoid Election Day mishaps that cannot be resolved on the last day of voting – and Abrams was clearly encouraged by the record volume of people casting ballots on the first day of voting.

Democrat Stacey Abrams has put a heavy emphasis on early voting, giving out T-shirts and other swag that promotes early voting. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

“Yesterday was amazing,” Abrams said to supporters Tuesday afternoon at El Tesoro restaurant in Atlanta as she kicked off a statewide bus tour. “It does not mean that voter suppression doesn’t exist. That’s like saying that there are no more sharks in the water because more people get in. We know that voter suppression is alive and well in Georgia. But we’re stronger. We’re faster. And we’re better than it.”

Abrams voted in person Thursday afternoon at a YMCA in DeKalb County.

The former state House minority leader has campaigned on a broad platform that still includes Medicaid expansion, but she has leaned into protecting abortion access in the wake of the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade. 

In a recent poll, most respondents backed some of Abrams’ key positions – such as spending the state’s record $6.6 billion budget surplus to bolster services instead of awarding tax cuts – even if they did not support her.

The governor’s consistent lead in the polling available is likely due in good part to the power of incumbency, says James LaPlant, a political scientist and the dean of the Valdosta State University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences. 

Democrats across the country also face headwinds with an unpopular Democratic president and a midterm election where history usually favors the party out of power.

Stacey Abrams at an Atlanta restaurant kicking off of her statewide bus tour on the second day of early voting. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

“Stacey Abrams’ best chances may really have been four years ago when it was an open seat,” LaPlant said.

“Incumbency, tax cuts, and a relatively strong economy I think bodes well for Kemp,” LaPlant said. “And I would argue, by and large, Gov. Kemp steered clear of a lot of that extreme polarization and bomb throwing (seen elsewhere) during the pandemic. And maybe he’s reaping the rewards of that right now.”

But LaPlant offered one big caveat. 

“I wouldn’t underestimate Stacey Abrams’ ability to mobilize voters and turn out the vote,” he said. 

A glimpse of who is showing up to vote early

Lesley Medlock, a 44-year-old Butts County voter, said she worries the high voter turnout spells trouble for Abrams.

“I could be wrong – and I hope I’m wrong– but I just feel like a lot of that is probably people voting against Stacey and (Sen. Raphael) Warnock,” Medlock said.

Medlock is a voter whose biggest concerns about Kemp are the strict abortion restrictions and permitless firearm measure he signed into law. She planned to vote Friday on her day off, but she has been frustrated by the number of people around her who seem disengaged.

“We have to get out and vote,” Medlock said. “Personally, I know a lot of people who just won’t vote. They say it doesn’t make a difference and they’re going to choose whoever they want to choose. And I don’t know who they think ‘they’ is. I guess this magical person.”

Up in conservative Bartow County, Joe Adams usually holds off till Election Day to cast his ballot, but the memory of an hour-and-a-half wait in a major election motivated him to vote early in Georgia’s midterm.

So, this time the reliable Republican voter who works in construction dropped by the Bartow Elections Office in Cartersville Wednesday to back Kemp in his bid for another term.

Adams praised Kemp’s handling of the pandemic and criticized Abrams’ plan to spend part of the state’s record $6.6 billion surplus to increase services.

“We need to stay steady, stay the course and keep the coffers built up,” Adams said. “Who knows, we might have a rainy day, we may be looking at another 2008 recession. We don’t want to go through that again. We want to make sure our reserves are there for us if we need them.”

J. Thomas of Smyrna was one of the first Georgians to cast his ballot when early voting opened Oct. 17. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Michael Filson, a retiree who delivers pizza part time to make ends meet, says he usually prefers to vote early because he’s older and wants to avoid the long lines. Filson voted for Kemp because he has a “proven record,” but he also crossed over to vote for some Democrats, although he preferred not to specify which ones.  

“They’re talking about raising the Social Security income for seniors, but they raised my rent $100 for the month. That pretty much wipes that out. It’s like a big ball rolling down the hill, and I just feel like I look to certain candidates to provide a better path for our economy, and that’s No. 1, if you can’t live, it doesn’t really matter about other things,” Filson said after voting Wednesday at the Cartersville Civic Center.

“Nobody’s perfect, and I thought (Kemp) stood up very well to the Trump intimidation, I would say, and he handled it with class, and so that’s another part of the reason I voted for him,” he added.

Kemp’s response to former President Donald Trump’s pressure campaign to overturn the 2020 election results had the opposite effect on R. Hunter in Smyrna. Hunter voted for Abrams.

“Just for the alignment of Trump. I think they’re the extremists. And even though he had some contingencies between Kemp and Trump, I don’t think he stood out enough, he just remained neutral. I think he was being politically expedient, as opposed to saying the votes here in the state of Georgia did count. There was no fraud. I believe in calling a spade a spade,” Hunter said.

Over in Cobb County, J. Thomas breezed in and out of the Smyrna Community Center on the first day of voting.

“You know, I’m almost tired of all the noise, noise, noise,” said the left-leaning voter of why he was so eager to vote. “I’m a pretty decided voter. So, it just seemed to me that I wasn’t going to be swayed one way or another.” 

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Jill Nolin
Jill Nolin

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.

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Ross Williams
Ross Williams

Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.

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