The initial ‘hot take” on Democrat Joe Biden’s victory on November 3, emphasized the critical importance of traditionally Republican suburban white voters who crossed over to support Biden out of revulsion with President Donald Trump while remaining loyal to GOP candidates farther down the ticket. Subsequent examination suggests that this narrative hardly squared with actually voting patterns in the critical battleground state of Georgia, however. It is true that, along with Fulton, the state’s three most populous suburban counties, Dekalb, Cobb, and Gwinnett accounted for over half of Biden’s vote gains over Hillary Clinton four years ago, but it is also true that Cobb, by the margin of but a single point, is the only one of the trio where minorities are not in the majority.  Beyond that, the Republicans also failed to hold the line in local races in these counties, which saw both Cobb and Gwinnett elect their first black sheriffs. The same patterns in voting and turnout seemed to hold in the state’s Senate runoff races. On the other hand, while the emerging  counter-narrative holding that, like President-elect Biden, “the Democratic senators-elect owe their wins to Black voters” is truer to the facts, it undervalues the significance of the share of the white vote claimed by the Democrats in both the presidential and senatorial races.

Republican strategists who opted to go all in with Trumpism in the Georgia senatorial runoffs did not anticipate the contradictory appeals that would soon be emanating from various quarters in the GOP camp, leaving voters to choose between “Turn out big to preserve president Trump’s legacy” and “This election will be rigged just like the other one, so don’t bother.” Suffice it to say, neither the farcical attempt by Trump and his kamikaze henchmen to discredit the November 3 results, nor his brazen try at coercing Georgia election officials into helping him steal the state did much to cement his legacy as something to be preserved. Meanwhile, calls to boycott the balloting in the Senate runoffs because the fix was already in resonated with enough Trump diehards, particularly in counties where they were most concentrated, to put Republican candidates Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue at a definite disadvantage. At the same time, minority voters defied the traditional wisdom by turning out in proportions unheard of for runoff elections. In fact, at 90% of the general election total, the overall turnout in the runoff races was actually much higher than historical precedent would have suggested. But, where Republican voting was down roughly 10% in both races, the slippage for the Democrats ranged from roughly 5% for Jon Ossoff to 3% for Raphael Warnock.

Altogether, blacks accounted for roughly 32% of the electorate in the runoffs as compared to 29% in the general election. The already suspect narrative that ticket splitting by better educated suburban whites was the key to Biden’s success on November 3 was even shakier after the runoffs, as both Democratic candidates ran slightly behind him with this demographic on January 5. At the same time, both ran ahead of him among black voters in Georgia’s most heavily black counties, who actually showed up in greater numbers than in the general election.

What we can discern thus far about voter behavior in the Georgia Senate runoff elections makes it clear that the primary constant in both the presidential and senatorial races was the overwhelming turnout and corresponding Democratic loyalty at the ballot box among minority voters.  The Democrats would have stood little chance of winning any of these contests without this show of fidelity, to be sure. Yet, simply concluding that they owe their victories here, (and elsewhere, perhaps), solely to energized minority voters, rather than any real change in white voting patterns, does not do full justice to the complexity or potential significance of what enabled the Democratic to win these elections. Since the civil rights initiatives of the mid-1960s led southern whites to flee the Democratic ranks in droves, the principal difficulty for Democrats in the region has been the success of their Republican adversaries in painting them as a party made up overwhelmingly of, by, and for minorities. Accordingly, they have long struggled in vain to win back an elusive, perhaps even mythical, contingent of working-class whites who are more attuned to economic than racial concerns. Finally, urged on in 2020 by Stacey Abrams and other minority leaders, Georgia Democrats redirected their energies and resources to an all-out, unvarnished effort to register and turn out their historically loyal nonwhite base.

The success of this minority mobilization initiative by Abrams and her cohort was clearly the most significant contribution to the party’s improved fortunes in this state, but the ultimate promise of their accomplishment might still have gone unrealized had they not managed to pull it off without simultaneously losing ground with white voters. In both 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama picked up 20-23% of the white vote in Georgia, almost the same share as John Kerry in 2014 and slightly more than Hillary Clinton in 2016. In her 2018 gubernatorial bid to become Georgia’s first black (or woman) governor, Stacey Abrams nudged the Democratic share of the white vote up to 25%. This year, both Biden, Ossoff, and Warnock upped that share to roughly 30%. These are hardly astronomical figures, but neither were the victory margins of any of the Democratic candidates. With demographic trends likely to remain favorable to her prospects, Abrams seems well-positioned to secure the Georgia governorship in 2022. The long- or even medium-term damage to Republican fortunes in state or national politics incurred in these last tragic days of the Trump presidency is impossible to gauge at this juncture. Still, it’s fair to speculate that she will still need to at least hold on, in large part, to her party’s admittedly modest, slow-to-come-by gains with white voters to succeed two years from now where she fell just short two years ago. If she actually managed to build on those gains, the import of what we have witnessed over the last two months will be even greater than we can appreciate just now.

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Image Credit: the photo of the west side of the US Capitol indicating the 2021 Senate majority as blue and the minority as red was created by LikeTheDew.com from a photo of the west side of the US Capitol was taken by Martin Falbisoner via Wikipedia.org (Creative Commons.

Jim Cobb

Jim Cobb

Jim Cobb teaches history at the University of Georgia, where he is B. Phinizy Spalding Distinguished Professor in the History of the American South. His most recent book is the South and America Since World War II (Oxford University Press, 2010) He has been known to blog at www.cobbloviate.com.