Peach State in Play: What will it mean if Georgia turns blue this election?

A Clinton victory in Georgia would mean a lot less for her than it would for state Democrats
Will Georgia turn blue?
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in the third presidential debate

Clinton: Drew Angerer/Getty Images; Trump: Win McNamee/Getty Images

With Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in a tailspin across the country, made worse by his refusal in last night’s debate to say if he’d accept a loss on Election Night, it’s worth revisiting a question that’s hovered in rhetorical limbo for several months: Could Georgia’s 16 electoral votes actually go for a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time in 20 years?

According to political strategists on both sides of the aisle, the short answer is yes—or, at least, maybe. You might have seen a Washington Post/SurveyMonkey poll from Tuesday showing Hillary Clinton four points ahead of Donald Trump in Georgia, but most other polls show Trump leading here by a similar margin. Politicos say the real outcome will depend on who shows up to the polls as early voting gives way to Election Day, and what resources national Democrats are willing to spend with only a few weeks to go. The more important question might be, what would a GOP loss in Georgia mean for the near-future of state politics?

“If the election were held today, I think Hillary would win,” said Democratic consultant Chris Huttman, who specializes in voting statistics. “Georgia has 260,000 fewer white registered voters now than it did in 2008, when John McCain got 52 percent of the vote. I could see Hillary getting 48, Trump getting 46 and Johnson with 7.”

No one we spoke to seems to believe that Trump will be our next president, but will he win Georgia? Most agree it’s a toss-up.

“The wild card is turnout,” said Chris Carpenter, a Democratic strategist. “Are Republican voters so turned off by Trump that they’ll stay home on Election Day? Usually, a pollster’s models are based on what’s happened in the past, but this is such a unique year that all bets are offs.”

Sandy Springs mayor and veteran GOP operative Rusty Paul believes that Georgia still leans Republican, but conceded that Georgia could go either way. Democratic operative Tharon Johnson, however, said, “Demographically, Georgia is already a blue state.” Even so, he said, for Clinton to win here would probably require support from a good number of whites who’ve voted Republican in recent years.

Okay, let’s say Clinton wins Georgia. Could Trump drag down other Republicans on the ballot? Probably not, since, unlike many other states, there are no competitive congressional races in Georgia. The only other statewide race on the ballot is for Senate, in which moderate Republican Johnny Isakson is likely to win reelection over obscure businessman Jim Barksdale by a comfortable margin.

But could a loss at the top of the ticket have fallout for the state parties? Johnson believes so.

“If Clinton wins Georgia, it will mean Democrats have made tremendous strides in turning the state blue again,” he said. For one, it would validate predictions that continuing demographic changes may finally have tipped the electoral scales in the Democrats’ favor—as well as indicate that voter registration efforts, such as those by House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams’ New Georgia Project, had paid off. Also, a top-of-the-ticket victory would be a strong argument for national Democrats to stop treating the Peach State like a lost cause and invest more resources behind Georgia candidates, as Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has suggested. Democrats have put more resources in Georgia for the 2016 general election than they did the past two cycles, Johnson pointed out, but nowhere near as much as has been spent in “target” states like Ohio or even Arizona, a longtime red state where the Clinton campaign announced Monday that it would plow another $2 million into advertising. Several polls now show Clinton leading Trump in Arizona by a slim margin.

Lake sees a potential silver lining of a different sort if Georgia goes for Clinton. “Donald Trump losing in Georgia may be the best thing that could happen for Republican candidates in 2018,” he said, by serving as a wake-up call for complacent pols. While Paul doesn’t welcome a loss, he agrees that it could shock the state party into becoming more inclusive.

“The GOP must choose between expansion or oblivion.”