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Q&A: All eyes on Georgia, an election battleground — again

It’s been a long election season, and it’s still not over. Two pivotal runoffs on Jan. 5 in Georgia will determine which party will control the U.S. Senate [...]

It’s been a long election season, and it’s still not over.

Two pivotal runoffs on Jan. 5 in Georgia will determine which party will control the U.S. Senate, as well as the fate of President-elect Joe Biden’s political agenda.

Jonathan Rodden, a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR), says the Democrats face an “uphill turnout battle” in their challenge against two Republican incumbents in the Georgia runoffs. Democrats would need to win both seats to swing the Senate makeup in their favor.

Biden narrowly won in Georgia — the first Democratic presidential nominee to do so since Bill Clinton defeated George W. Bush in 1992 — amid a stream of election aftershocks that included lawsuits and a hand-recount of ballots. Now, with so much at stake with the Senate runoffs, campaign ads and political activists are going full throttle.

Rodden, whose research focuses on political geography, comparative politics, polarization and economic uncertainty, is not surprised about the suspense surrounding Georgia. Rodden is a professor of political science at the School of Humanities and Sciences and also the founder and director of the Spatial Social Science Lab at Stanford and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is also author of the book, Why Cities Lose: The Deep Roots of the Urban-Rural Political Divide.  (Basic Books, 2019).

Here, he discusses Georgia and how its electoral dynamics reflects trends in America’s political landscape.

Georgia has historically been a Republican stronghold, but now with Biden’s slim margin of victory, and the need for runoffs for two Senate seats, is that changing? Is this a Trump-related blip or a real shift in voting dynamics?

The Democratic presidential vote share in Georgia bottomed out in 2004, but it has been steadily increasing since then. Most of the Democrats’ gains have been among suburban voters — primarily those in the vast metro Atlanta area — but also in suburban areas around Augusta, Savannah and Columbus.

It is likely that Georgia’s statewide elections will continue to be very close in the years ahead. Georgia is not yet a “blue” state. Note that Trump underperformed vis-à-vis Republican candidates in the other statewide races on the ballot in 2020 — including high-profile races for U.S. Senate and low-profile elections for public service commissioners. This was also true of U.S. House races and state legislative races, and it was true in counties all around the state, including urban, suburban and rural places. In other words, if Trump had merely been as popular as the other Republicans on the ballot, he would have won Georgia’s electoral votes.

You’ve studied and recently wrote a book on the urban-rural political divide and the rise of suburban influence in America. How did those aspects come into play with this election, and in Georgia specifically?

In my book, I show that the correlation between population density and Democratic voting has been growing for decades around the country. In recent years, this has been especially true in the Southern states that are gaining population, like Georgia, Texas and the Carolinas. In 2020, in Georgia, the Democratic vote share did not increase much in the densest urban neighborhoods or in the most rural areas, but it increased significantly in the suburban areas where population density is growing most rapidly. The same thing happened across the United States.

Domestic migration is an important part of the story in places like Georgia. Voting behavior is changing rapidly in suburban places that are experiencing a migrational influx of young, college-educated voters. And it is clear that the most rapidly growing counties are also those that are moving most quickly toward the Democrats.

Other states around the country tell some version of the same story. Suburban counties that gained population over the last decade became more Democratic. In the central-city neighborhoods of big cities that are losing population, Trump’s already-low vote share didn’t change much, or even increase slightly. In rural areas that are losing population, his vote share increased and turnout was high.

What electoral dynamics will influence who wins or loses in the Georgia runoffs?

The Democrats will need to win an uphill turnout battle in order to be successful in the runoffs.

Turnout was extremely high in November, and it is typically much lower in Georgia’s runoff elections, especially for urban voters. An asymmetric dip in turnout in runoffs often favors Republican candidates. Both parties will focus on mobilizing their supporters to show up for yet another election. Some of Trump’s strongest supporters might be less inclined to turn out without him on the ballot, but then again, the same might be true of some of his most passionate detractors. And just to keep things interesting, some conspiracy theorists are now calling for boycotts. It’s difficult to predict how this will all add up.

Democratic Senate candidates already received fewer votes than their Republican opponents in the first round in November. The most important thing that has changed since November is that we now know who will be the president in January. My Stanford colleague Morris Fiorina argues that some voters appear to prefer divided government, and knowing that the Democrats will control the presidency, it is not difficult to imagine that some reluctant Biden voters will aim to provide a check on the president by keeping the Senate in Republican hands.

With another presidential election behind us, talk of the need for electoral reforms are again top of mind. Does this illustrate what you’ve been saying — that the left has a geography problem?

Georgia turns out to be a very good example of the difficulty faced by the Democrats when trying to turn statewide votes into legislative seats. They won just over half of the votes for president, and around 49 percent of the votes in U.S. House races. And even though they did pick up a new suburban Atlanta seat, they were still only able to win 43 percent of the seats in the Georgia U.S. House delegation. Likewise, they won 43 percent of the seats in the Georgia State House, and only 39 percent of the seats in the Georgia Senate.

Something similar happened in each of the hotly contested Midwestern states where Joe Biden won a statewide majority. The Democrats were unable to win a majority of the U.S. House seats in a single Midwestern swing state, including Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. In Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the Democrats lost both chambers of the state legislature. In Wisconsin, in spite of statewide victory, the Democrats won only around 38 percent of the Congressional delegation, and a similar seat share in both chambers of the state legislature. In Minnesota, in spite of comfortable statewide wins, the Democrats lost the State Senate.

What’s the takeaway from all of this?

The problem for Democrats is not only gerrymandering, but the fact that their supporters are still highly concentrated in a small number of urban legislative districts. Due to a combination of these factors, Democrats have little chance of winning many state legislatures, even in states where they routinely elect governors, U.S. senators and state Supreme Court justices. The inability to win state legislatures is quite consequential, and will become even more so if the Supreme Court continues to develop its new doctrine asserting primacy of state legislatures over governors and state courts in matters of election law.

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