election 2016

The Female Politician Trying to Turn Georgia Blue

Representative Stacey Abrams, a Democrat from Georgia, speaks during the DNC in Philadelphia last July. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

With this very unusual election upon us, the electoral map is showing potential for change that is far more dramatic than many on the left or the right might have anticipated. Polls have shown Republican strongholds including Utah and Texas to be very close races (Real Clear Politics moved deep-red Texas into the “toss-up” column over the weekend) while Nate Silver has North Carolina, which went blue for Obama in 2008 but back to red in 2012, over 70 percent likely to go to Hillary Clinton. Among the states to watch most closely is Georgia. The last time it voted Democrat was for Bill Clinton in 1992, but state Democrats have been working hard for years in the hopes that a young and ever more racially diverse electorate has the potential to move the state left once again. Leading the charge to turn Georgia blue is Democrat Stacey Abrams, the state’s House Minority Leader. I spoke with her about the numbers and the organized efforts behind the scenes in the Southern red state that keeps turning pinker on the 538 map.

Tell me about possibility of Georgia going blue.
The best way to talk about it is to think of North Carolina [which went blue] in 2008. The demographic mix was 70 percent white, 21 percent African-American, and roughly 6 percent Latino. They invested money and turned out black voters. But a lot of their investment was really in swing voters, trying to make sure you got white moderate voters to vote for Obama. You had to do both at the same time to win; you couldn’t just do one.

But look at Georgia by contrast today: In terms of active voters, it’s 57 percent white, 30 percent black, 2 percent Latino, and 2 percent Asian, which means you don’t need to spend as much time or money on the persuasion part of the equation. All you have to do is turn out black voters and brown voters. So unlike in North Carolina, where they spent $22.9 million trying to persuade white voters to vote for Obama, all you have to do is spend a quarter of that convincing black voters to vote. It’s a much easier lift to turn out people who agree with you than it is to convince people and then turn them out.

So how’s it going?
I think it is … going. We’re moving in the right direction. It will always be a heavy lift because until you’ve proved it’s possible then it’s always potentially impossible. And Georgia has not had the level of investment in our elections that you would need to see since the 1990s, since the last President Clinton.

The state went blue for Clinton in ’92, but not ’96. Why?
You have to remember that Newt Gingrich [who led the insurrection against Bill Clinton in 1994] is a product of Georgia. And Georgia was going through a demographic shift in the 1990s that made us very solidly red. Previously, we’d been a Democratic state, but you had conservative Democrats, northern liberals who’d moved into Georgia, and African-American Democrats: We were all in same party but not with the same values. That started to fracture in the ’90s. It completely fell apart in 2002, and Democrats hit our nadir in 2010 with the tea party.

What’s different now is that the demographic migration in Georgia is massive and it’s unique; between 2000 and 2010, 1.5 million new people moved into Georgia, 1.2 million of whom were people of color. That is unprecedented in terms of Georgia’s population.

Is that because of the growth of Atlanta?
The Atlanta metro region has seen a massive influx of African-Americans, many of whom are well-educated middle class; then you have white northern liberals who’ve moved to the South. But you’ve also got an explosion in both the Latino and Asian-American population. By 2024–2025, it’s estimated that Georgia will be majority minority and that majority will be 33 percent African-American, 11 percent Latino, and 9 percent Asian-American.

What’s bringing them to Georgia?
Business, jobs. The South has a lower cost of living, and people like to locate where other people share their values, their history, their ethnicity. You have the reverse migration, lot of folks whose families moved north during the Great Migration who are coming back.

And so your aim is to turn out all these new residents to vote.
You want everyone. You want white swing voters. But your untapped population, the population we haven’t spent a great deal of time or effort on, is people of color. And the goal is spending time early, convincing them that their votes matter. If you want progressive policies, these are the folks you go to.

Just to be clear: You’re talking about something separate from just registration.
Right. There are two parallel tracks that have to happen. In Georgia, you have the absurdity of 800,000 people in 2014 who were unregistered African-American, Latino, and Asian voters. Even our Republican governor has acknowledged that it’s a dangerous thing for a democracy for so many people who have a stake in the system to not have a voice in the system. But registration is nonpartisan, so I have to be very clear, because we have a voter-registration program that is nonpartisan. In 2014 we began to focus on it, because I’d heard about this 800,000 number for years. And that’s not to say that there haven’t been civil-rights organizations on the ground trying to tackle it, but it’s expensive. You’re not talking about a population that walks up to your door and asks to register; you’re talking about a population that no one ever asks to register and therefore never thinks they should register. Which means instead of standing at a festival, you have to go and knock on their doors. And not everyone lives in Atlanta. Which means going to rural communities, going to depressed communities, going to communities where there is absolutely no trust in politics or in politicians. And that is an expensive endeavor. So the New Georgia Project’s entire focus is voter registration, voter education, and voter activation of people of color. We successfully registered 64,000 people in 2014 and another 123,000 applications will have been submitted in 2016. When we finish this year, we will have registered around 20 percent of that unregistered population we started with in 2014.

That said, I’m also a Democrat. As a Democrat, the job isn’t just registration; where Democrats have failed is that we have not done a solid enough job turning out these voters. There is a truism — that black people don’t vote, that poor people don’t vote — and when those two intersect we spend even less time and money on them. Democrats in Georgia have done an exponentially better job this cycle, which is why we’re now in play. The state party decided to invest in field offices, creating a program called New Day Georgia. We had a truly coordinated program long before the presidential decisions were made.

And what are the voters you’re working to turn out saying?
I’m hearing three things. One: They believe there’s a possibility and a path to victory for Democrats up and down the ballot. Two: Particularly among communities of color, they are deeply terrified of what a Trump presidency would look like. And three: They trust Hillary Clinton. And that, I think, is important, because despite the national narrative, what we’re hearing is: We like her, we trust her, and we think she’s not only a solid candidate in her own right but that she’s the best guarantee of a continuation of Obama’s presidency.

You very rarely hear about enthusiasm for Clinton in the national narrative.
I think there’s a false comparative that exists in this election, where Barack Obama is used as the barometer for enthusiasm. Barack Obama was a phenomenon. He, over the course of fewer than four years, went from an unknown state senator who defied political history and racial history and stepped onto the stage with a mix of skills we had not seen before. And he did so in such a singular way that to ever compare any other presidential candidacy to his is to by definition devalue what he accomplished, but also to create a false expectation for everyone else. It is a much clearer comparison to compare Hillary to a Bush, or to John Kerry. Is she going to have the fervor? No, but I think people are enthusiastic about her.

What do you make of the rhetoric about criminalization of immigrants and people of color, the “lock her up” chants, the calls to hang Clinton in the town square, and the fact that prominent Republicans are not objecting to that kind of talk?
I’m from the Deep South. Lester Maddox and the other most powerful segregationists were never the crazy-haired folks, they were the folks telling you those folks were okay. And yes, Trump is a racist, xenophobic, jingoist bigot who will stop at nothing to dismantle every factor that makes America great because he doesn’t actually want America to be great again, he wants America to be white again. But only some white people, because other ones he doesn’t care for very much.


He cares for them in a very particular way.
I don’t think care is the right word. There’s another four-letter word you can use.

Have you seen fallout from the sexual-assault comments and reports of his groping?
Yes, there has been disappointment that Republicans have not unendorsed or rejected him. How do you say it’s okay for this man to be your standard-bearer when you say it’s not okay for him to crow about sexual assault? This is creating an animating concern among college-educated white women.

Ironically, this is affecting those swing white voters, who you said weren’t the emphasis of your project to move the electorate.
Yes, mobilization of voters of color is continuing to be the first priority for us, because mobilization is how we win. But Donald Trump has created an opportunity: We do not have to invest in persuasion of white swing voters because he’s persuading people for us. But long-term, we win with mobilization, because we’re not going to have Donald Trump on every ballot. We have to be persuading those voters who need to be mobilized that voting matters.

So why should America care about what happens in Georgia on November 8?
Because Georgia is the future of America. Economic changes, demographic changes happening around this country — not only with regard to race but in terms of age — all those things find a perfect crucible in Georgia. Georgia is a vision of what America is going to look like in 20 years. Our demographic changes are dramatic. We are now on the cusp of being a majority minority state for first time since Reconstruction, and it’s going to be the only state that’s majority minority where the majority of that majority is going to be African-American. An incredibly crucial part of the American population is moving south and southwest for economic opportunity, and Georgia is where they land, and if you want to understand the economic future of this country, if you want to understand the political future of this country, if you want to understand the Democratic future of this country, you have to pay attention to Georgia.

The Female Politician Trying to Turn Georgia Blue