Joe biden’svictory in Georgiawas arguably the most surprising red state reversal of the 2020 presidential election. Exploring the surprisingly rapid transformation of Gwinnett County, the state’s largest suburban county, shows how this upheaval came about. product, while offering a glimpse into the future of the state.Second round of the US Senate.
By the mid-twentieth century, Gwinnett, 30 miles northeast of Atlanta, was largely rural, with just 32,000 residents, over 95 percent of whom were white. Barely 2% of residents had completed four years of college education and only 25% of the workforce held professional or managerial jobs. Who would have imagined that today Gwinnett County would be home to nearly 950,000 people and one of the most diverse counties in the country?
Gwinnett’s path would be shaped by Atlanta, which lost 162,000 white residents between 1960 and 1980. Gwinnett saw its white population increase by 102,000 during the same period. The county has also grown with the arrival of thousands of white migrants from elsewhere in the country, drawn to Atlanta’s vibrant metropolitan economy. In 1990, some 357,000 people, more than 9 out of 10 white, lived in Gwinnett County.
Growth at Gwinnett would accelerate, even as newcomers diversify. By 1990, the Atlanta subway, including suburban counties like Gwinnett, was becoming a destination of choice for African Americans traveling from other parts of the United States. During this time, the lure of the suburbs was accelerating. the emigration of mobile blacks up to Atlanta itself. The share of Gwinnett’s population that was African American more than doubled in the 1990s, and the black population increased by 140% in the decade that followed. With this continued influx and many white people from Gwinnett moving to decidedly whiter suburbs like Barrow and Walton counties, by 2020, 30% of Gwinnett residents were black.
This is only part of the story of Gwinnett’s diversification. The boom in construction jobs spawned by the 1996 Olympics, coupled with declining employment in the Texas and Louisiana oil fields, had a push-pull effect on Latin American migrants, so that today, Latin Americans constitute 20% of the county’s population. The relentless pursuit of foreign investment, reflected in a current tally of over 600 foreign-invested enterprises in the county, also attracted a steadily expanding flow of Asian and Asian American workers, who liked the county’s highly touted schools and the cost. relatively low life. As of 2020, residents of Asian origin made up 13% of Gwinnett’s population.
These arrivals made Gwinnett more prosperous and diverse, but were not universally welcomed by the non-Hispanic white population. While Gwinnett officially became a majority non-white county around 2007, it wasn’t until 2018 that representatives of other ethnic groups first managed to win seats on the county commission and council. education.
White resistance had partisan implications. Gwinnett became a Republican stronghold in the 1964 presidential election, and county voters walked away from the GOP camp only once in the next 50 years, to support fellow Georgian Jimmy Carter for the presidency in 1976 .
But as the county’s non-white population grew, Democrats gained traction in Gwinnett in the presidential election.
Barack Obama, just five points behind John McCain in Georgia in 2008, captured Newton, Rockdale, and Douglas, three other Atlanta metropolitan counties whose non-white populations were on the rise. Obama maintained that suburban beachhead in 2012, and four years later Hillary Clinton took over Gwinnett and two other diverse counties.
With Democratic hopes bolstered by Clinton’s performance, state lawmaker Stacey Abrams, who is African-American, ran for governor in 2018. She narrowly lost to Republican opponent Brian Kemp – but beat him at Gwinnett by over 14 percentage points. Abrams’ performance persuaded the National Democratic Party to mount a serious presidential effort in Georgia.
But instead of persisting in futile efforts to bring white blue-collar workers back into the fold, Democrats would focus on molding a growing, more politically engaged non-white population into a powerful political force in the state. To this end,Abrams and his allies fought against voter suppression, expanded registration, and increased turnout. The effort was decisive for Biden, who carried essentially the same counties as Abrams two years ago, while beating his statewide vote count of over 550,000.
It was the culmination of a rapid political overthrow in Gwinnett. Obama lost the county by 9 points in 2012 only to see Biden win it by just 18 points eight years later.
This swing is not explained by the ‘hot catch’ that Biden owes his nationwide victory to the disgusted establishment white Republicans in the suburbs, who crossed party lines rather than voting for Donald Trump , but who are otherwise stuck with the GOP candidates. Trump has certainly lost some support among white voters in suburban Georgia. But in the end, it was a racially and culturally diverse group of burb-related newcomers that put Democrats on top.
Of course, experts are correct that Biden won in the suburbs – the three most populous suburban counties in the state (Dekalb, Cobb and Gwinnett), as well as Fulton, where Atlanta is located, accounted for more than half of Biden’s voting gains over Hillary Clinton’s totals. from four years ago. But it is also true that of these counties, Cobb is the only one where non-whites are not the majority. (And Cobb misses being predominantly non-white by a single percentage point).
There are limits to what one can deduce from comparing voter registration percentages to actual vote shares, but in Gwinnett County the correlation is too close to ignore: Whites now represent 40 % of registered voters in the county, and Trump won 40% of the vote. Likewise, in Georgia’s Seventh District, the only House seat in the state Democrats have reversed, Carolyn Bourdeaux’s defeated Republican opponent garnered the same share of the vote in Gwinnett as Trump.
Moreover, the perceived national pattern of suburban white Republicans voting for Biden but for the GOP in other races certainly did not happen in Gwinnett. Instead, Democrats racked up big margins in both Senate contests, while local clashes saw more ousts of white Republicans by non-white candidates, including the election of Gwinnett’s first black sheriff. Here, the Democrats did not attack the traditional Republican base, but simply passed it.
Despite this, Republicans in the second round of the US Senate in January are doubling down on their presidential election strategy of tailoring their message to harsh Trumpers and portraying Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock as socialists, communists or anarchists who hate the ‘America.
Republicans are betting that the traditional wisdom that non-white turnout fades badly in the run-off will once again hold. But a lot has changed in the non-white population, especially in the suburbs.
If the Georgian Democrats win in these two races, they will have pulled off an even greater feat than the one they pulled off on November 3. They will also have shown the rest of the country that the demographic forces that are transforming Georgian politics could further fuel Democratic success. in the rapidly diversifying suburban areas of the country.
James C. Cobb is editor-in-chief of Zócalo Public Square and Professor Emeritus of Spalding History at the University of Georgia. His latest book isThe South and America since World War IIThis piece was written forZócalo public square.
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