Standing in front of a huge David Perdue bus in a hangar at DeKalb Peachtree Airport, Sen. Johnny Isakson begged the crowd to go to the polls. “Tomorrow isn’t just about going to the polls for yourself, it’s about bringing our neighbors and friends,” he said, “Whatever you do from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., you want to get everyone to go out and vote.” This is the typical plea of a campaign in its final stretch. But it also reflects the fundamental and driving dynamics of the Georgia’s election contests. Rapid demographic change has pushed this Southern state from a deep red—which gave 57.9 percent of its votes to George W. Bush—to a reddish purple, where the Democratic Senate candidate—Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn—is neck-and-neck with Republican David Perdue, and the Democratic candidate for governor—Jimmy Carter’s grandson Jason Carter—is close to a win over Nathan Deal, the Republican governor. Compared to 2010, the black share of the electorate is larger (28.8 percent versus 28.2 percent) and the white share smaller (64.2 percent versus 66.3 percent). These look like small shifts, but in a close election, they’re substantial. In an electorate with more black voters, Democrats need significantly fewer white voters to maintain a lead and get to 50 percent. What’s more, these trends are ongoing—the Georgia electorate of 2016 and 2018 will each be less white than the one that preceded it. Tuesday’s races—and the strategies pursued by both campaigns—will set the stage for the next decade of partisan fights in the state.
Which is why voter mobilization has had been a huge part of the Georgia campaigns in a way that hasn’t been true in more than a decade. Indeed, if there’s an underlying story to the Georgia statewide races, it’s that the parties are fighting a fierce war to get their supporters to the polls, with Democrats registering new voters by the tens of thousands, and Republicans pinpointing their voters with new tools and techniques. “This is the largest operation as far as people and technology we’ve ever had,” said Ryan Mahoney, a strategist with the Georgia Republican Party.
Supporters on both sides understand as much. Among Michelle Nunn’s final events in the Georgia Senate race was a service project. More than 100 volunteers gathered at a park near an Atlanta high school—one, not-incidentally, where her mother used to teach—to spruce up the field and prepare the community garden for another season of growth. One of the volunteers was Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell, who was there with Nunn on St. Patrick’s Day 2013 when she made the decision to run. “People understand that [this campaign] is an investment,” he said, “It’s important to breathe life into Georgia Democrats before 2016 or 2018, and make sure those progressive values are there.”
Indeed, the Nunn event wasn’t just a service project—it was a chance for volunteers to canvass the surrounding, mostly black American neighborhoods. At a certain point, before Nunn arrived, one older volunteer complained that she would rather canvass the area—for her, talking to voters was more important than pulling weeds.