By Sean Sullivan and Toluse Olorunnipa,
The last time a Democratic nominee for president won Georgia, “Wayne’s World” was a box office hit, Boyz II Men topped the charts and Senate hopeful Jon Ossoff was 5 years old.
On Tuesday, Joe Biden will campaign there, sending the strongest signal yet that Democrats are serious about trying to shake the Republican Party’s decades-long grip on the second most populous state in the Deep South. Their hopes are powered by two pillars of the emerging Democratic coalition, Black voters and suburbanites.
Biden’s visit will include a speech in Warm Springs, where Franklin D. Roosevelt’s private retreat was located. His remarks, which aides billed as a major piece of his closing argument, are expected to urge national unity in a country confronting difficult challenges. Later, he will host a drive-in rally in Atlanta.
The trip is a gamble for a nominee who has limited his appearances in the final days of the race. Time is a candidate’s most valuable commodity, and his decision to spend a day in Georgia reflects his advisers’ growing confidence about springing an upset there.
But the Biden camp is pinning its hopes on demographic shifts and rising anger with President Trump in a state that could have an outsize impact on the balance of power in Washington. Its two competitive Senate races could determine which party controls the chamber, and the state also host a pair of closely watched House races and a fierce battle for control of the statehouse.
“[Biden] understands the vitality of the Sun Belt and the importance of not just winning this election, but setting the table for success for the Senate and for the country,” said former gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams, whose near miss in the 2018 governor’s race made her a Democratic star. She added, “Georgia has been ground zero for many of these conversations.”
But strategists in both parties said victory is uncertain for Biden. President Trump, who has campaigned actively in the state, retains considerable strength among White voters in rural areas, giving him a base that will be hard to shake.
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll released Monday illustrated how close the state has become, with Biden winning 47 percent of likely voters and Trump taking 46 percent. Sen. David Perdue (R) is running about even with his challenger Ossoff (D), and Democrat Raphael Warnock is leading in the special Senate election, which is expected to go to a runoff.
Turnout in Georgia so far suggests a Democratic advantage, although strategists from both parties caution that Republicans could make up that ground on Election Day, when polls show most Republicans will vote. As of Monday, more than 2.7 million Georgians had cast ballots either in person or by mail, according to data from the Georgia secretary of state — well above the total early vote in 2016, with a week still to go.
One distinct advantage for Biden in the early numbers is the share of the votes cast by Black voters, which by Sunday was about 31 percent of the total mail-in vote — roughly the same as the Black share of the overall electorate in 2016. Polls show that more Black voters plan to vote in person than by mail, meaning that turnout rate could grow on Election Day.
Campaigning in Chester, Pa., Biden said he had a “fighting chance” in GOP-leaning states such as Georgia. “I’m going to be going to Iowa, I’m going to Wisconsin, I’m going to Georgia, I’m going to Florida, and maybe other places as well,” Biden said.
Biden’s advisers have been watching Georgia for months, but Tuesday’s trip marks his first visit as the nominee. A Democratic candidate spending time in the state this close to an election has been a rare sight over the years. Bill Clinton was the last to win the state; four years after his 1992 victory, Republicans claimed it and haven’t given it up since.
But in recent years, several factors have made the state a riper target for Democrats, according to Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political scientist. One is an influx of younger voters and voters of color. Another is a shift in the preferences of white voters with college degrees, who have become more Democratic across the country in the Trump era. Finally, suburbs that once leaned Republican are trending blue.
“You put that together and you see that even in 2016, when overall the country shifted toward Republicans, Georgia actually shifted toward Democrats,” Abramowitz said.
Trump won Georgia by about five percentage points that year, and some Democrats think Biden’s chances may be better there than in North Carolina, which has attracted more attention as a potential swing state.
In the final stage of the race, Biden has sought to portray himself as a unifying figure who can repair the divisions that have spread in the Trump era. His advisers and allies said his Tuesday speech in Warm Springs is expected to hit similar notes and nod to Roosevelt, who confronted war and a depression. Some aides drew comparisons to a recent speech in Gettysburg, Pa., in which Biden invoked Abraham Lincoln and drew parallels to the Civil War.
Still, Democrats have thought they were on the cusp of winning Georgia before, only to fall short. Trump’s aides say they are confident about capturing the state, and Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien said Biden’s trip will be a waste of his “limited campaign travel” on a state “he’s not going to win.”
“I invite him to spend his time in Georgia,” Stepien told reporters Monday. “We feel very, very confident in our standing in Georgia, based not just on polling information, but the early voting data paints a very favorable picture for the president.”
But the president’s recent travel schedule, and his allies’ spending patterns, suggest Republicans do see the state as competitive.
Trump has visited Georgia twice over the past month, including for a rally in Macon on Oct. 16. Trump’s son, Don Jr., made two appearances in the state last week.
And on Friday, America First Action, a pro-Trump super PAC, unveiled a late $10 million advertising push in five states including Georgia. A month earlier, a separate $40 million ad buy from the group also included Georgia.
Brian Robinson, a GOP consultant in the state, said this attention from Republicans shows the state is up for grabs. The political shifts over the last four years are significant, he said, as suburban voters have drifted away from Republicans and rural voters have hardened their support for Trump.
“Atlanta is a tale of the country, as far as what the suburbs do,” said Robinson, who lives in the northern part of DeKalb county, outside Atlanta. “More than ever, what the suburbs here will determine is, do enough white people who live around me vote for Biden? Or do they stick to where they’ve been most of their lives, and vote Republican? The entire country should be watching this.”
Robinson, a longtime spokesman for former governor Nathan Deal (R), described a “30-30” rule that political strategists use in Georgia: If Democrats can increase Black voter turnout to 30 percent of the electorate and win at least 30 percent of the white vote, they have a good chance of carrying the state.
Despite multiple efforts, Democrats have not been able to reach those thresholds in recent elections. While Black voters have made up a large portion of the early vote so far, Republicans don’t see that as reflective of the final electorate.
Trump’s firewall could be the rural counties in southern Georgia where recent Republican candidates have dominated with as much as 90 percent of the vote, and where many people may vote on Election Day rather than earlier. The president has encouraged his supporters to turn out in force on Nov. 3, telling a crowd in Pennsylvania on Monday that Election Day would reveal a “red wave” of support.
Other Republicans dismissed the Democratic optimism. “This happens every four years,” said Seth Weathers, a Republican strategist and Trump’s former political director in Georgia. “Please let me be on record that I’m claiming Georgia as a Trump victory.”
Amy Gardner, Amy B Wang and Annie Linskey contributed to this report.