MARIETTA, Ga. — Standing on the corner of Powder Springs Street and Marietta Walk Trace here you can get a glimpse of the changes that are redefining politics in Georgia.
On one side of the street is Cobb County’s history, the Marietta Confederate Cemetery, filled with 3,000 graves dating back to the Civil War. On the other side is a symbol of Cobb’s future, the Marietta Walk homes, one of many developments bringing new voters to an area that was the cradle of Newt Gingrich’s political career a few short decades ago.
For many longtime residents there is a palpable shift and some, such as Sue Robinson, aren’t pleased.
“It’s changing. I know Cobb County was more Republican, and now we’ve had a lot of move-ins, and it’s getting to be a mixture now,” says Robinson, who owns Robinson’s Coins, a rare and antique coin dealership just off Marietta’s town square. “I sort of liked the Republican part of it.”
It’s difficult to overstate how rapidly the politics of the area has evolved. The results from the last few elections tell the story.
In 2012, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney won Cobb County by 12 percentage points and won Georgia by 8 points. In 2016, the county swung Democratic as Hillary Clinton won Cobb by 2 points, even as she lost the state overall by 5 points. This past November, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams won Cobb by a solid 9 points — and only narrowly lost the state.
“I tend to look at this going back to 2016 when one of the most monumental things that happened was when Hillary Clinton actually won the top of the ticket here in Cobb,” said Michael Owens, the Cobb County Democratic Party Chairman. “It’s the first time in 40 years that a Democrat has won the top of the ticket.”
“In 2018, in Cobb County, we carried every statewide election by 30,000 votes or more,” Owens noted.
Those are the kinds of moves that have Democrats here thinking about the possibility of moving Georgia into battleground territory for the 2020 presidential race.
Owens says his party has made huge strides in Cobb with loosely affiliated Republicans who are unhappy with the direction and tone of the GOP under Donald Trump. But in this suburban county, and others like it across the country, it’s hard to ignore the impact of transplants from outside of the area — and, especially, from outside of the state.
Since 2010, Cobb’s population has swelled by 10 percent, outpacing overall growth in the state. At the same time, Cobb has become more racially and ethnically diverse. Its white, non-Hispanic population has dropped from 58 percent to 52 percent.
Meanwhile, the county’s median household income has climbed by $6,500, much faster than the state’s growth ($3,600). And the percentage of adults with college degrees has climbed to about 46 percent, much higher than the state’s average of 30 percent.
But the more telling data point may be where those transplants have come from. Census figures show that 10 of the top 20 counties where new residents are coming from voted for Clinton in 2016. Counties where they are moving from include Democratic bastions like Queens County, New York; Los Angeles County, California; Miami-Dade County, Florida; and Wayne County, Michigan.
Loren Martin grew up in the area and moved to South Carolina before coming back. She now owns the West Cobb Diner with her husband and marvels at the differences.
“Just growing up here in the 80s, it was not this populated. It was, you know, not this crowded, no traffic. And now it’s just exploded,” she says. She describes the diner’s clientele as a lot of “old Marietta” people who still order homemade meatloaf and black-eyed peas, but the most popular item on the menu may be fish tacos.
“That true Southern fare is what people like the most,” she says. “But then you throw in this fish tacos which is — you know, maybe that’s the perfect example of the difference of what we have going on here in Cobb County and in this restaurant.”
The forces behind the changes in Cobb are complicated. The growth of metro Atlanta as the so-called “capital of the South” plays a role. An impressive list of Fortune 100 companies are based in the area, including Coca-Cola, Home Depot, Delta Airlines and United Parcel Service. Those companies and others like them seek out college-educated millennials, a group that tends to vote Democratic by large margins.
One force that may be contributing to that influx of young, college-educated voters is Kennesaw State University, which has expanded dramatically in the last few decades. Since 2000 the school’s enrollment has more than doubled to more than 32,000 students.
At Red Hare Brewing, a nearby tap room, owner Bobby Thomas sees the influx and feels the politics shifting.
“I’d say younger people in this area definitely change the politics in this area," he said. "I hate to say it, but like as old money moves on or as the older generation moves on, there’s going to be younger people come in. I just met our House representative the other day; definitely a younger female. So, it’s not just old, you know, people running everything around here. It’s definitely a younger crowd moving in.”
That’s just Cobb County, of course. But the same kinds of changes can be seen in other suburban counties here, such as nearby Gwinnett, where the vote has also swung toward the Democrats, and when you add all those suburban impacts together the entire state of Georgia starts to look a little different.
How important is Cobb is to the larger Georgia equation? Consider this: Republican Gov. Brian Kemp lost Cobb County, but it still produced the most Republican votes of any county in the state. In other words, Cobb has a big impact on the state as a whole and the changes here could have very big impacts going forward.
Jason Shepherd, the chairman of the Cobb County Republicans, said the state may be in play in 2020.
“I think Georgia’s been a swing state before. I think it’s moving towards that way again,” Shepherd said. “You know, you look at back about the 90s and 2000s when the Republican Party was really coming off strong in Georgia. But 1992 Bill Clinton won Georgia. Four years later Bob Dole won Georgia. That tells you Georgia’s, well, it’s a swing state.”