For The Record

Who stayed home in Georgia’s Senate runoffs? Rural white Republicans

By: - April 22, 2021 4:45 pm

President Donald Trump spoke for 50 minutes at a campaign rally in Rome, Ga. Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020. Stephen Fowler/GPB

A new analysis of demographic data from Georgia’s November and January elections confirms a larger decline in white rural turnout led to Democrats flipping both U.S. Senate seats, one of the biggest challenges the GOP must tackle ahead of 2022.

After a record-setting November 2020 general election that saw more than five million Georgians cast their ballots, enthusiasm remained high for the Jan. 5 runoff with nearly 4.5 million votes.

Precinct-level data analyzed by GPB News show the narrow margins of victory for Sen. Jon Ossoff (about 55,000 votes) and Sen. Raphael Warnock (about 94,000 votes) were the result of stronger Black turnout — particularly in metro Atlanta and southwest Georgia — coupled with a precipitous decline in white rural Republican areas across north Georgia.

In 1,387 precincts that former President Trump won in November, turnout dropped by about 310,000 voters, including a 9% drop in white turnout, or about 227,000 white voters. Black turnout in those precincts fell only 6.7%.

By comparison, the 1,261 precincts President Biden won in Georgia saw a drop-off of just 220,000 voters, white turnout dropped by about 7% and Black turnout fell only 6.4%.

Of the 25 precincts that saw the largest raw decrease in voters from November to January, all of them went for Trump. Nine of them are in the 9th Congressional District in northeast Georgia and four of them are in Forsyth County, a fast-growing exurb that sits in both the 7th and 9th districts.

In heavily Republican Jackson County, northeast of Atlanta, turnout dropped by more than 5,000 people from the general election to the runoff — about 9.5% of its 55,000 active voters.

As the Atlanta Journal-Consitution reported in February, more than 752,000 voters in November’s election didn’t vote in January, and 228,000 new voters participated in the runoff only. The state’s active voter rolls grew by about 102,000 voters between the election, through a combination of new registrations and inactive voters who, after skipping several election cycles, became active again.

The turnout disparity is more pronounced at the county level, where 17 of 159 counties saw a turnout drop of at least 10% or more. They are concentrated in GOP strongholds across northwest Georgia, like Chattooga, Walker, Murray, Bartow and Gordon counties, and northeast Georgia in places like Jackson, Barrow, Stephens and Banks counties.

In contrast, a handful of precincts actually saw more people show up in January than November, primarily smaller neighborhood-sized precincts in Fulton County. According to the turnout by demographic by precinct data from the Secretary of State’s office, 18 of the 25 precincts with the smallest raw decline in turnout went for Biden in November.

Counties with the smallest drops include larger metro Atlanta counties such as Fulton, Clayton and DeKalb and counties across Georgia’s Black Belt including Randolph, Terrell, Warren, Calhoun and Dougherty — all with a 5% and under turnout decline.

While several factors are responsible for Georgia now having two Democratic U.S. senators, the drastic decline in turnout among Georgia’s white rural GOP base came as President Trump, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and other top Republicans assailed Georgia’s election system, falsely claiming widespread fraud altered the outcome and ultimately led to many voters staying home.

Another data point worth noting: the Black share of the Georgia electorate increased slightly from 27.3% in November to 28% of total votes cast in January. Black voters make up 30% of Georgia’s 7.7 million active voters.

In 2022, every statewide office, state lawmaker, U.S. House Representative and one Senate seat will be on the ballot in what is expected to be another record turnout race with razor-thin margins.

The data illustrate Republicans will have to work to motivate their rural base to trust the election system and return to the fold — and there are signs Georgia’s new 98-page election law could do the trick. A recent poll from the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs found that 82% of Republicans said the law increased their confidence in Georgia’s Republican-controlled voting apparatus, and Gov. Brian Kemp has rallied conservatives against backlash to the law, including Major League Baseball’s decision to move the All-Star Game from Cobb County to Colorado.

But the GOP will also need to make inroads in the metro Atlanta suburbs, a rapidly growing and diversifying slice of the electorate that helped Joe Biden win the state’s electoral votes, flipped both Senate seats and is full of voters more skeptical of voting changes some Democratic advocacy groups have painted as “Jim Crow 2.0.”

Since 2012, about half of the more than two million voters added to the state’s rolls have come in a handful of metro Atlanta counties.

The UGA poll found just 17% of Democrats say the law increases their confidence with the election system, and even a majority of Republicans said the sweeping changes were a result of Trump’s narrow loss.

Further complicating some of the down-ballot races in Georgia: redistricting, which will see new maps for state House, state Senate and U.S. House come later this year after data delays with the U.S. Census Bureau. While statewide elections such as governor and U.S. Senate won’t be affected by these lines, some of the more competitive and contentious races could serve as a motivating factor for some people to show up and others to stay home.

This story appears in the Georgia Recorder through a news partnership with Georgia Public Broadcasting.

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Stephen Fowler
Stephen Fowler

Stephen Fowler is an award-winning reporter and photographer for GPB News covering state and local politics.

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