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'It's too important now': Record turnout, Black voters fuel Democratic hopes in Georgia

An influx of newly registered voters, most of them Black, could make Joe Biden the first Democratic presidential nominee to carry the state since 1992.
Image: Democratic Presidential Nominee Joe Biden Campaigns In Georgia
Joe Biden speaks at a drive-in campaign rally in Atlanta on Tuesday.Drew Angerer / Getty Images

This is the final story in a series on battleground states poised to play pivotal roles in Tuesday’s general election. The series has spanned over six months and nine states, focusing on issues like the dual public health and economic crises caused by the pandemic, the protests around the country for racial justice, trade and voter turnout efforts. Read about Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Ohio, Iowa, and Arizona.

Norman Williams hadn’t voted in 52 years.

But the 75-year-old retired Atlanta resident cast his first ballot since 1968 earlier this month for Joe Biden for one simple reason: His intense desire to see President Donald Trump kicked out of office.

“It’s everything about him. He’s a narcissist, he’s a liar, he’s a racist, he’s proven he doesn’t know what he’s doing,” Williams said.

“I had not thought about voting for years, because I always felt my one vote wasn’t going to mean nothing,” he added. “But it’s too important now to not do it.”

Williams is part of a fast-growing coalition of voters fueling a potentially major shift in the surprise 2020 battleground. Like him, they are freshly engaged in the political process, highly motivated and showing up in record-shattering numbers to vote early. Like him, most of these new voters are Black.

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Interviews with more than a dozen voters, as well as former lawmakers, strategists and experts in Georgia politics, reveal a traditionally red state in reach for Biden as Democrats up and down the ticket appear to be gaining ground with just two days to go until Nov. 3.

“There has been a culture shift here focused entirely on getting people involved, with Democratic Party values, who had not been invited into the process of voting. And now, we have invited so many new people into that process,” Adrienne White, the vice chair of candidate recruitment for the Georgia Democratic Party, said.

“Some of these people are here because we got them here. Others have arrived organically, by virtue of having seen what chaos in the presidency really looks and feels like, especially during the pandemic,” she added.

More voters, more engagement

A number of factors are at work in Georgia this cycle, experts told NBC News.

The state hasn't backed a Democratic presidential nominee since 1992, but an influx of young, college-educated transplants to the Atlanta metro area are boosting the state’s numbers of Democratic voters. Additionally, recent polling shows there's the possibility that larger numbers of white suburban women turned off by Trump could vote Democratic, plus two extremely competitive Senate races further juicing the turnout.

Still, the biggest one is the sheer number of new, mostly Black voters.

Many of these newly registered voters are now politically engaged because of the group Fair Fight, a voter rights organization started by the Democrat Stacey Abrams following her narrow loss in the 2018 gubernatorial race, that says it has registered more than 800,000 new voters in the state.

And now, those people are going to the polls.

As of Saturday, nearly 3.9 million Georgians had already cast their ballots — more than 94 percent of the total number cast in the state in 2016.

Norman Williams.
Norman Williams.Courtesy Norman Williams

More than 26 percent of those voters are new or infrequent voters, according to a recent Associated Press analysis of political data — a fact that, given the Democrats’ large registration numbers, heavily favors the party.

“If they get many of those 800,000 or so folks to the polls, it would be game over,” Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia, said. “Younger voters are notoriously difficult to get to show up, and efforts to get minority voters who have not participated in the past can be, too. But if [the Democrats] achieve those things at high levels, they will win.”

Like many Georgia politics experts, Bullock noted that Biden, to win, will need 30 percent of the white vote in the state and will need Black voters to make up 30 percent of the overall electorate.

Polls show he could hit those thresholds.

Exit polling in the 2018 gubernatorial race and in the 2016 presidential race both showed that Black voters made up 31 percent of the total electorate. That number could edge up this year, experts said.

Meanwhile, a Monmouth University poll released Wednesday showed Biden with the support of 31 percent of white Georgia voters. By contrast, exit polling showed Abrams got only 25 percent of the white vote in 2018 and Hillary Clinton got only 21 percent in 2016.

Polling also suggest white women are fleeing Trump.

2016 exit polling from the state showed that Trump got the support of 70 percent of white women, the support of 43 percent of all women in the state, and the support of 75 percent of white voters in the state. In addition, the polling shows that Trump got the support of 51 percent of people who said they lived in a “suburban area.”

Recent polls show declines for him across all categories.

A New York Times/Siena College poll released earlier this month shows Trump with the support of 41 percent of women voters in the state, the support of 65 percent of white voters in the state, and 40 percent of people who said they lived in the suburbs.

Overall, the Monmouth poll showed Biden leading Trump among all registered Georgia voters 50 percent to 45 percent. The latest Real Clear Politics polling average in the state shows Biden leading Trump by just 0.8 percentage points, while each candidate led in three of the last six polls tracked by NBC News in the state.

Covid-19, race relations, Senate races boost Biden

Conversations with voters in Georgia revealed that the most pressing issue driving Black voters' support for Biden was the Trump administration’s response to Covid-19 — it has the sixth most Covid-19 cases and the ninth most Covid-19 related deaths, and cases are surging again in the last two weeks — and Trump’s handling of race relations and protests against police brutality.

Arlene Geiger, 74, an Atlanta resident whose son was hospitalized with the coronavirus, said she was “disgusted” to hear Trump speaking of the fact that at least 14 doctors were involved in his care after he was diagnosed with Covid-19.

“My son who had Covid and my daughter who died of cancer would have never had the chance to get the care of 14 doctors,” Geiger, who is Black, said. A Democrat, she has already cast her vote for Biden.

Kenneth Barton Jr., 70, a retired engineer from a suburb north of Atlanta, said he’ll vote for Biden “on a prayer that he can do something to fight against the systemic racism that has been inflamed by” Trump. He's a registered Democrat, but says he has voted for Republican candidates in the past.

Barton, who is Black, lives in Georgia's 6th Congressional District, which Democrat Lucy McBath flipped blue in 2018, ending 40 years of Republican reign. In Georgia’s 7th Congressional District, which includes the northeastern Atlanta suburbs, polls show Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux poised to flip that seat blue for the first time since 1994. That Democrats are likely to carry both could mean enough white voters will come out in the Atlanta suburbs to get Biden over the finish line statewide, strategists said.

Both of the state’s U.S. Senate races are dead heats and listed as toss-ups by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. Democrat Jon Ossoff narrowly leads incumbent GOP Sen. David Perdue, according to polls. In the special election for the seat currently held by Republican Kelly Loeffler, who is running to keep it, Democratic candidate Raphael Warnock appears to be competing strongly to advance to a runoff. Their candidacies could further increase the turnout among Democratic and independent voters looking to make changes in the state’s representation in Washington, strategists said.

That so many races in Georgia are competitive for the Democrats is a product of the state’s changing makeup, experts explained. Georgia's population has grown by more than 14 percent in the last 10 years, partly because Atlanta’s information technology and entertainment industries have expanded rapidly, bringing in more young, college-educated voters.

Those changes might not be quite enough to edge the state into blue territory overall this year. But even Republican operatives admit the flip is imminent.

“It’s just a question of when we flip, not if,” said Martha Zoller, the chair of the Georgia United Victory Super PAC backing Loeffler. “It will probably be more like 2024. I don’t think that’s here quite yet,” she added.

Zoller also said she thought it was likely that there was “a pretty noticeable undercount” of Trump's support in Georgia.

Both candidates have hit the ground

Of all the states Biden and Trump have both crisscrossed in recent days, Georgia is perhaps the most eye-catching: the state has been reliably red in presidential races for 28 years.

For Trump, that spells trouble, experts said, whereas for Biden, the state’s competitiveness merely adds one more way he could get to 270.

“Trump knows that he has to win Georgia. If he loses it, there’s no way for him to get to the presidency,” Bullock, of the University of Georgia, said. “Biden has many different paths. Winning Georgia just gives him another.”

Trump made trips to the state in July and September, and he held a rally in Macon earlier this month. He’ll make another trip, on Sunday, to Rome. Vice President Mike Pence has visited the state to campaign at least twice since July.

Savannah Viar, Trump Victory's Georgia press secretary, said in a statement that the campaign's "permanent, data-driven ground game cannot be matched by Joe Biden's anemic efforts in the Peach State."

Meanwhile, Biden visited the state Tuesday, holding events in Warm Springs and Atlanta. His running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., visited the prior week and is coming again on Sunday. Former President Barack Obama is coming through on Monday.

"Georgia voters are tired of President Trump’s failure to combat Covid-19 and are ready for real leadership, who will take this pandemic seriously," Jaclyn Rothenberg, the campaign's Georgia communications director, said in a statement.

The Biden campaign has spent $6.1 million on ads in the state since Labor Day, while Trump’s campaign has spent $8.2 million, with the Republican National Committee throwing in another $900,000, according to Advertising Analytics. Outside groups supporting Biden have poured in another $2.5 million, while pro-Trump outside groups have put in another $8.8 million.

Many of the Biden ads explicitly target Black voters. One features several prominent mayors who are Black women appealing directly to fellow Black women to vote, while another does the same thing with Black male mayors and Black male voters.

All of this appears to be helping to keep enthusiasm levels high for Black first-time voters.

One of them, Keara Skates, 20, a sophomore at Georgia State University in Atlanta, said she was excited to cast her first vote earlier this month for Biden.

“I knew it was going to be bad under Trump. But it was exceedingly worse than I thought it would be,” Skates, whose father and grandfather were among 15 people in her circle of friends and family who were severely sickened with Covid-19 this year, said.

“So many people have had to die to get us to this point,” she said, referring not only to the pandemic, but also to Black victims of police brutality and of racial violence, like Ahmaud Arbery, who was chased and gunned down by two white men in Georgia earlier this year.

“How could our president not even try to pretend he wants to protect us?" she said. "At the very least, Biden will try to."